§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Knapman.]
§ Madam Speaker
Because of the large number of hon. Members who wish to speak, I have had to limit speeches—other than those from Front Benchers, of course—to 10 minutes throughout the debate.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)
Last summer, the other place had a two-day debate on the constitution. It was a worthwhile and constructive occasion, and I hope that today will prove to be so as well.
We have no written constitution in this country—it evolves. It has changed in this Parliament, and it will change in the future. I agreed with the leader of the Labour party, when he said last week:The idea that the British constitution should never change and evolve and develop is completely absurd.I entirely agree with that—of course it is right—and I made precisely the same point myself when speaking in Wales. The point is not whether our constitution should change, but how it should change and at what pace it should change.
We have given a new role to the Welsh and Scottish Grand Committees; we have devolved powers to schools and hospitals; and we have reformed procedures in this House and increased Government accountability to Select Committees. I am in favour of more change. We have agreed to set up a Northern Ireland Grand Committee similar to those for Scotland and Wales.
I favour further reform of the procedures in this House. We have set out our proposals to ensure that new legislation is better considered, with a two-year parliamentary programme and more draft legislation for consultation. As the two Houses are complementary, I see a case for similar examination of the other place. We will continue the process of improving public services, because we wish to give people more choice and opportunity.
§ The Prime Minister
I want to make progress—I shall give way a little later.
All that change has been gradual; it is sensible, and it has been thought through before it has been produced. We on this side of the House have always advocated a Europe of nations. Labour's plans would undermine the strength of the nation state. Like many on the continent, Labour seems to be advocating a Europe of the regions, but England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not regions—they are four nations within a united kingdom. A Europe of the regions would be the sure way to enable a bureaucracy to bypass national Governments. It is the wrong way forward, and it is not for us.
1056 That is only one reason—it is by no means the principal reason—why I do not favour a tax-raising parliament for Scotland.
§ The Prime Minister
If the right hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress, I undertake to give way later.
§ Mr. Benn
May I ask the First Lord of the Treasury, in that capacity, what democratic justification there could be, in principle, for handing over his powers on public expenditure, taxation and interest rates to a central bank in Frankfurt, so that the responsibility that he now exercises—accountable to Parliament and the people—would no longer be exercised through the ballot box? Has he read the book of Genesis and of how Esau handed over his birthright for a mess of pottage, and has been remembered ever since as having made the biggest mistake of his life?
§ The Prime Minister
I have, but I am not sure that I would draw a direct relationship between that story and the treaty of Rome, although the right hon. Gentleman might do so. There was a pained expression on the faces of the Labour Front Benchers as he asked his question. As he knows, if we had not obtained the opt-out that I obtained at Maastricht, we in this House would not have the option to make at some stage in the future the decision that the right hon. Gentleman wishes us to make.
Let me return to saying what I was about to turn to. I do not favour a tax-raising parliament for Scotland, or a toothless Welsh Assembly, or 10 regional assemblies, taking powers either from this House or from local government or from both—it is uncertain where they would come from. Nor do I favour unpicking the House of Lords, changing the voting system and ceding further powers from this House to Europe.
The Labour party has given in to the temptation to put party before country. [Interruption.] There is no nice way of expressing that, nor does there deserve to be. The plans drawn up by the Labour party, with the Liberal Democrats in tow, are a blueprint that would undermine the unity of the United Kingdom and erode the authority of this Parliament. As they stand, any Member of this House should be ashamed to endorse them.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
A moment ago, the Prime Minister recognised the nationality of Wales and Scotland, but the provisions that he suggested might be available for changing the government of those two countries were all encapsulated within this institution in London. Does that mean that, if the Conservative Government are elected to power, for however long they are in office, there will in effect be an English veto on any aspirations of Wales and Scotland to national autonomy, and that the only alternatives for Wales and Scotland are the status quo or full self-government?
§ The Prime Minister
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the last time the people of Wales had the opportunity to 1057 choose, they chose by a majority of four to one not to have devolution, but to remain part of the United Kingdom.
The plan to set up an income-tax-raising parliament in Scotland, partly elected by proportional representation, on the bogus mandate of a referendum with two questions, before the legislation has even been considered, is deeply flawed. So is the plan to have an assembly in Wales without tax-raising powers, and a pre-legislative referendum with one question.
In essence, it is proposed that Parliament would be presented with what is little more than a public opinion poll and told to endorse it, however absurd examination of the subsequent proposals showed them to be; and if this Parliament exercised its constitutional right and radically changed the legislation, as well it might, there is no plan in the minds of the Labour party or the Liberal party for a subsequent referendum to discover whether that change would be acceptable. I believe that this is an abuse of the way in which constitutional change should be approached.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
A moment ago, the Prime Minister talked about putting party before country. Is he not doing precisely that by keeping the whole country guessing about the date of the next general election? Is not that all about putting party before country? Does he not find it outrageous that one person should have the power to decide when the rest of the country will be allowed to vote? Would he support fixed-term Parliaments?
§ The Prime Minister
A straight answer to the hon. Gentleman is no, and I will waste no more time on him.
§ The Prime Minister
I will give way a little later, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
We have in the House constitutional parties that favour separatism—an independent Scotland and an independent Wales. Devolution plans, for them at least—and for others—cloak separatist ambitions. The Labour and Liberal parties may well believe that they are buying off the separatists. I believe that they are selling out to the separatists. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Let me now consider their plans for Scotland.
Of the 129 members of a Scottish Parliament—
§ The Prime Minister
Of its 129 members, 56 would be placemen, drawn from lists approved by party leaders, with no accountability to constituents or responsibility for them. There would be gender quotas—a politically correct idea, which many people would find patronising.
There will be no revising chamber—no second chamber. The House of Lords would not be permitted to scrutinise Scottish legislation; neither would anything 1058 replace it. [Interruption.] I am pleased to see Labour Members hoot. Nor would anything replace it. Five million British subjects, on the threshold of a new millennium, would be brought under unicameral Government—the object of suspicion to every democrat for centuries. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is what they propose. No checks; no balances—that is the plan, and it is a complete rag-bag.
§ Mr. Maxton
As the Prime Minister is talking about devolution, will he explain why he is prepared to devolve power to Northern Ireland but not to Scotland and Wales?
§ The Prime Minister
I shall come directly and in detail to Northern Ireland, to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. It is—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] It is a fair point, and I will discuss it in detail.
If I may return for a moment to Scotland, the other question unanswered is whether, in any legislation, there is to be Royal Assent. I am not sure, and I hope that it can be made clear.
Then, of course, there is the—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Why should there be?"] I did not hear what was said; perhaps it was not worth hearing. Then there is the West Lothian question.
§ The Prime Minister
West Lothian is more logical that East Lothian. I shall deal with West Lothian.
The Labour leader has the opportunity to make history today: he can answer the West Lothian question. How could Scottish Members of Parliament in this House continue to legislate on matters in England, if English Members had no control over the same matters in Scotland? I hope that we will get an answer.
More insanely than that, those Scottish Members of Parliament voting on, say, health and education, and law and order, in England would not be able to vote on the same issues affecting their own constituents, because that would be the privilege of the Scottish Parliament.
Let me illustrate the point more clearly. The shadow Chancellor, who, alas, is not here this afternoon, would not be able to vote on health, education or other important matters relating to his constituents in Dunfermline, but he could get stuck into Dagenham or anywhere else in England, closing down grammar schools, abolishing GP fundholding practices and all the other regressive nonsenses that Labour supports. I do not understand how anyone can defend such unconstitutional nonsense.
§ The Prime Minister
In a moment. I shall finish this passage, and then give way first to the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel).
1059 We have long known that those difficulties exist. The Labour leader himself has honestly admitted that "the anomaly is there" and said that the answer to the West Lothian question is—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Mr. Campbell-Savours, I am sick and tired of hearing you shout out from a sedentary position—[Interruption.] Order. There was a great deal of pressure last Thursday on the Leader of the House to bring the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to the Dispatch Box today for this important debate. I want to hear the debate in silence. I call the Prime Minister.
§ The Prime Minister
I think that we have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman for the moment.
Let me repeat what hon. Members may not have heard. The Labour leader has honestly admitted that "the anomaly is there", and said that the answer to the West Lothian questionis the answer we've always given".But what is that answer that he has "always given"? And where is it? It is as elusive as the Loch Ness monster. Has anyone seen it—or heard it? Will we hear what it is today?
Then, of course, there is the position of Scottish Members of Parliament who might be appointed as Ministers at Westminster. Will the leader of the Labour party confirm the statement of the shadow Foreign Secretary who, when responsible for health, said:Once we have a Scottish Parliament handling health affairs, it is not possible for me to continue as Health Minister administering health in England"?The same principle would apply to education, the legal system, local government, home affairs and so on.
Since the 19th century, all devolution schemes have foundered on the question whether to withdraw voting rights from Westminster Members of Parliament representing nations with devolved Parliaments, or whether to reduce their number. The Liberal Democrats, to their credit, recognise that. They are already advocating a cut from 72 to 60 Scottish Members. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) doesnot believe it will be possible to get a devolution Bill through Parliament without a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs to 57 or less.The Labour leader has said:of course there are consequences in what we plan; we don't ignore them.So what are those consequences, and what does he plan?
At present, Scotland has more Members of Parliament than a strict justification on grounds of population would produce. The Labour Opposition wish to keep them in Parliament, because, without them, they would have a diminished chance of a UK majority. So, in their party interest, they are prepared to gerrymander the electoral system. The powerful office of Secretary of State for Scotland would also be abolished, lessening the voice of Scotland in the House and in Whitehall.
§ Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)
I recognise that the Prime Minister believes strongly and 1060 genuinely that creating any devolved Parliament could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. I hope that he would respect the reverse view, which is that, without devolution, we risk the break-up of the United Kingdom. No anomaly that he has so far mentioned is as great as the present one, where 580 non-Scottish Members of Parliament determine purely Scottish legislation, such as the poll tax, which we had in Scotland before it was introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom.
§ The Prime Minister
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the poll tax and the grievance that it was introduced in Scotland first. The tartan tax is to be introduced in Scotland only.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
I wonder whether the Prime Minister had time to look at a survey published in The Scotsman on Monday, which showed that three quarters of Scots believe that the Tories are an English-based party with little relevance to Scotland. That included a third of Tory voters, although that was admittedly a small sample. After almost seven years of his prime ministership, why do so many Scots believe that he leads an anti-Scottish party? Might it be something to do with his implacable hostility to legitimate Scottish aspirations?
§ The Prime Minister
I know that the hon. Gentleman would wish to peddle that line, but if he looked at what has happened to the quality of life in Scotland during the 18 years of Conservative Government, he would see the extent to which it has improved. If he looks at the growth of employment prospects, he will see the extent to which they have improved. If he sees the improvement in the education system or the health system, that has happened under Conservative Government during the past 18 years. If he were totally frank, he would acknowledge that that was the case.
I come to the point led into by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale—the infamous tartan tax. Why should people in Scotland pay income tax at a starting rate 15 per cent. higher than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?
§ The Prime Minister
Or lower? The hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) clearly thinks that the extra public expenditure voted by the House to Scotland per head of population would continue, so that the Scottish Parliament could offer lower taxes to the people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He knows that that is unreal.
The Labour party has just put up posters giving a five-year pledge by the Labour leader not to put up income tax rates. However, Labour would put them up in Scotland, where it is pledged to establish a tartan income-tax-raising Parliament within a year, which would put up tax rates. That is a little insensitive of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield. The Islington elite clearly forgot about Scotland, and certainly forgot about the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), although I suppose that that is part of the Labour constitution. The hon. Gentleman should move to Islington.
1061 Perhaps today the Labour leader will clarify the situation: income tax up in Scotland or not? If he has no plans to raise tax, why shackle his party to a policy that enables tax to be raised? What would the tartan tax do to jobs, investment and pensioners' savings in Scotland?
An increase of 3p in the basic rate of tax would leave someone on average earnings in Scotland £6 a week worse off. For a married couple who both worked, it could be double that. It would cost families £300 with one person in employment, and perhaps as much as £600 with two people working. Scottish pensioners who saved all their lives or contributed to pension plans would be worse off, just because they live in Scotland.
If that injustice goes ahead in Scotland, how would it work? How much would it cost? Would not the Inland Revenue have to set up a separate tax regime for Scotland? Does not a separate tax regime acknowledge the blatantly separatist implications of Labour's plans for a different tax system? Separate tax regimes define separate nations.
§ The Prime Minister
I am not the only one who thinks so. As another critic said:The moment powers to raise taxation are offered and taken … the fracture of the United Kingdom will have begun.They are not my words—although I agree with them—but those of Mr. Neil Kinnock when he was a Member of Parliament. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Workington has shouted at me from a seated position often enough over the years, so he can stay seated today.
Would the tartan tax be levied according to where people live, where they work, or where their company is located? Could it become the tweed tax, spreading across the border? If someone from Islington was employed by a Scottish company, would he pay the tartan tax?
I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a practical example to chew on and respond to. Take the case of an important Scottish company, Kwik-Fit. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to listen, as he may wish to respond to this point. I am sure that the conversation of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) is diverting, but he can talk to her later. Kwik-Fit has 4,000 employees in England and 1,200 in Scotland, but all are paid from the payroll in Edinburgh. Would they all pay the tartan tax, or would Kwik-Fit be expected to apply different tax rates to different employees? [Interruption.]
When Labour Members do not like it because they do not have the answers, they try to drown it out. I repeat: would Kwik-Fit be expected to apply different tax rates to different employees? If not, employees in England would pay the tartan tax. If they did not, they would face a tax rise if they were transferred to their head office in Scotland. What would that do to the competitiveness of an extremely successful Scottish company? Opposition Members have not thought about any of that.
§ Mr. Major
No, we want the organ grinder, not the monkey.
1062 What of Scottish Members of Parliament who advocate the tartan tax? Would they not be exempt from paying that tax? Within three months, the people of Scotland and the rest of Britain will have to vote on those crazy proposals. They have a right to answers, and, if those answers are not forthcoming today, they will be entitled to draw their own conclusions.
If anything could be as much of a mess as Labour's plans for Scotland, it must be its plans for Wales. Wales is to have an assembly instead of a parliament.
§ Mr. Major
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I am now talking about Wales. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] Perhaps I shall give way in a minute.
What is it about the people of Wales that means that Labour would not trust them with the powers that it is prepared to give to the people of Scotland? When the shadow Welsh Secretary, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), talks of a Welsh assembly not having tax-raising powers, he adds "initially". He says that Labour's plans for Wales are "clear and becoming clearer". What is becoming clearer—
§ Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the Prime Minister to refuse to give way to a Scottish Member of Parliament who wishes to ask a question about Wales, when the Prime Minister is arguing about the United Kingdom?
§ Madam Speaker
It is entirely up to the right hon. Gentleman to develop his speech in his own way. Perhaps the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) will be called to speak later in the debate.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Member for East Lothian knows that I have given way often enough in my speech, and shall do so again.
The shadow Welsh Secretary talks about a Welsh Assembly not having tax-raising powers initially. However, it is becoming clearer to the people of Wales that, in due course, they too will have to pay higher taxes for the privilege of living in Wales. I shall tell hon. Members why, and I quote:No level of Government has been denied some control of revenue raising … indeed, the lack of such a power and the conflict this could provoke is a more significant danger than having it".In essence, not having a tax-raising power is more dangerous than having a tax-raising power. That is not my view, but the view of the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). If the Labour leader does not repudiate that view, we know the fate for Wales—increased taxation.
Plans such as those mean that conflict between devolved Parliaments and the House would be inevitable. The outcome would be to damage the unity of the United Kingdom and lead to its fracture.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
Why does the Prime Minister persist in his nonsense of claiming that the choice before the people over Wales is for or against a devolved assembly? The choice is whether we have a vote or not. The Government are offering Wales no choice and 1063 no vote. That is what the people will decide in the general election. The Prime Minister is trying to stop Wales having a choice on devolution.
§ The Prime Minister
Wales had a choice and expressed its view very clearly in the past.
Let me now move to what is proposed for England. A parliament for Scotland—[Interruption]. An assembly for Wales—[Interruption.]. The more Opposition Members shout, the less they have the answers to the questions that I have put. There is a lot of sound and fury. We will see whether we get the answers. Then there are to be new assemblies for the regions of England.
Where is the appetite for a whole extra tier of government?
§ The Prime Minister
"Ask the people," says the hon. Gentleman. I bet that they would be very pleased with more bureaucrats, more politicians, more taxes.
Labour say that they will set up regional assembliesif that is what local people wantPresumably that means yet more referendums.
§ The Prime Minister
The Labour leader says that he is not in favour of referendums—that is one thing that is wrong with it. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman shares very few views with his leader, so it is unsurprising that he does not share that one.
If some regions choose to have an assembly, what will happen in those regions that do not? What would the assemblies do? The shadow Environment Secretary is very vague about that. He says that they will have "a say" over health. What that means, heaven alone knows. He is not certain, but just possibly he might want them to monitor water and electricity companies. He goes on to say that their demand for "more services" would be "unstoppable". What services? What nonsense! He has not the faintest idea what they are going to do.
The real reason for establishing regional assemblies across England has nothing whatever to do with good government in England; rather it has to do with giving the Labour party a spurious justification for keeping the present number of Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament in the House, even after establishing a parliament in Edinburgh and an assembly in Cardiff. That chaos—more government, more regulation—is the price that England would be asked to pay as the Labour party tries to appease separatism and tilt the electoral system in its favour.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Has the Prime Minister not noticed that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee pointed out that the people of England have £17 billion of public expenditure per annum spent by his placemen and women through quangos, and the regions and the people living in the regions have no say in what the quangos are doing?
§ The Prime Minister
If that is a new Liberal policy to abolish them all, I am very interested to hear it. No doubt 1064 they want to set up whole new elected tiers of bureaucracy. I note very carefully what the hon. Gentleman asks.
Let me turn to the point originally raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) about Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland remains one area where the Opposition parties have constantly supported Government efforts, and that has given the peace process added strength. I have publicly thanked them for that often enough, and I willingly do so again today. Unfortunately, some of them attempt to use the special circumstances of Northern Ireland to promote other views.
The hon. Gentleman asked why we can contemplate an assembly for Northern Ireland but not for Scotland and Wales. [Interruption.] It is a fair question, and if Opposition Members will listen, I will give them a detailed answer. The best answer is that given by the shadow Scottish Secretary, who said:We would be unwise to draw a parallel between Scotland's … desire to have a parliament and anything going on in Northern Ireland.I shall elaborate the point. He is right, because the circumstances are not comparable. That is only the background to why the hon. Gentleman made that statement.
What we have suggested for Northern Ireland is radically different from the plan that the Labour party has for Scotland and Wales. There is no suggestion of an assembly with tax-raising powers. There are no pluralist politics in Northern Ireland, as there are in Scotland and Wales. There is no representation by parties likely to form a United Kingdom Government. What we are seeking in Northern Ireland is a widely accepted accommodation based on consent. That would provide the surest possible foundation for maintaining Northern Ireland's place firmly within the United Kingdom. That is our wish. Labour's flawed proposals for Scotland and Wales would ultimately drive them out of the United Kingdom, and we oppose that.
Labour also proposes to fiddle with the House of Lords, despite the fact—
§ The Prime Minister
I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) until he has learnt better manners. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe).
§ Mr. Donohoe
Will the Prime Minister's proposals for Northern Ireland lead to a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in the House?
§ The Prime Minister
When Northern Ireland had an assembly in the past, it had 12 Members of Parliament and constituency sizes were about 50 per cent. larger than constituency sizes across the rest of the United Kingdom. There is already over-representation in Scotland: there are 72 Scottish Members, as against 17 for Northern Ireland. Its powers were not comparable with the powers that would go to a Scottish Parliament.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, if Northern Ireland had 1065 proper representation in the House, comparable to that for Scotland, we would have 23 Members of Parliament? Does he further accept that the plan is to return devolved local administration with powers to Northern Ireland? Does he also accept that the signing over of certain consultative positions to the Dublin Government is an anomaly in a kingdom that expects to rule itself?
As a graduate of Trinity college, I would have understood if the Government were guiding the appointment of a person to the senate of Trinity, but why, in the name of all that is wonderful, do we have to consult in quangoland on appointments to the senate of Queen's university, the numbers of which must be sent to Dublin?
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right about the comparable number of Members of Parliament. Indeed, there would be rather more English Members of Parliament on a comparable basis were we to have the same population representation as Scotland. As I said a few moments ago, we are seeking to provide the surest foundation for maintaining Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. That will remain our constant policy.
The Labour party also proposes to fiddle with the House of Lords, despite the fact that it works well as a revising chamber and as a forum for debate. There are times when we hear a little less from Labour Members about the House of Lords, such as last week, when they used it to undermine our plans to get tough on drug dealers, violent criminals and burglars. The House of Lords is all right then. What the shadow Home Secretary will not do in this House, he has his colleagues do in the other House if he possibly can. When the House of Lords so misbehaves itself that it agrees with the Government, Labour says that it is a bastion of unacceptable privilege.
Labour proposes to change the House of Lords in a two-stage reform. First, it would remove the right of hereditary peers to sit. For stage two, with characteristic firmness of purpose, it undertakes to work it all out later. Labour risks creating the largest and most powerful quango in history, to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). It would be a House filled with hand-picked appointments, which would give a whole new meaning to the term "trade union barons": an Islington focus group writ large. If those people are not to be appointed, will they be elected? If so, would the Upper House set itself up in opposition to this House? Who would arbitrate between them? Indeed:The prospect of a second Chamber challenging or replicating the power of the first would produce instability and inefficiency, and is to be avoided.That is my view, but that is also how the Labour party put it in its document. So it admits the dangers, but it still proposes the change.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The Prime Minister has already referred to a revising Chamber two or three times, saying, for instance, that one would not be available in Scotland under Labour's plans. Is he happy with the fact that, on Tuesday, this House reversed the decisions of the House of Lords on every amendment?
§ The Prime Minister
This House is sovereign. It is because the hon. Gentleman does not believe that that he follows the politics he does, but I do believe that this House is sovereign.
1066 The final lunacy in Labour's plans is, of course, reform of the voting system. The Liberal Democrats have long favoured that, for reasons that I well understand. It is true that the "first past the post" system does them no favours, but I think that it is right for the country. Proportional representation would deliver permanent coalitions, for ever depending on back-room deals with minority parties that would withdraw support whenever it suited them. [Laughter.] It is interesting to see that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) knows that that is true.
Labour's view, however, is very murky. We are told that Labour flirts with the idea of a referendum on proportional representation—one of the dozen or so referendums that it now plans in order to keep the Liberal Democrats happy. But, at the same time, the Labour leader uses his familiar tactic of sending people out into the Lobbies to whisper that he personally is opposed to PR. We know that he says one thing in public and another in private; now we see that he says different things in private whenever it suits him. Today, he can tell us his position in public.
We are told that constitutional reform would be a priority for a Labour Government. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that Labour Members confirm that. Constitutional reform would be a priority—not jobs, not taxes, not health, not law and order, but gerrymandering the constitution with these barmy propositions.
Our constitution is the foundation of our democracy. It is the base on which our freedoms appear, and our economic prosperity. That is why I defend it. I would change it only cautiously, and after careful examination. If the case were to be made, I would support it, but no case has yet remotely been made for the changes proposed by the Opposition.
The constitution should not be a political plaything for party gain. Ours is a united kingdom, a proud nation state, part of a Europe that is and should remain a partnership of nations and not a federal state. Labour's constitutional proposals would affect not just Scotland and Wales, but the whole United Kingdom. They would affect this Parliament. They would affect the way in which this nation is governed. The damage they would do is massive, and the benefits they would bring are dubious. They are rightly an election issue, and we shall make them so.
§ Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)
Judging by what we have just heard, this is the first Opposition day to be delivered to the Conservative party for nearly 18 years. We take it as something of a compliment that the Prime Minister should table a motion to debate our policy rather than his own. If I may say so, as an Opposition speech, the Prime Minister's speech was a classic of its kind; but, if the Prime Minister wants to make more such Opposition speeches, he should summon up a little courage and call a general election.
In his speech, as in several speeches of the same kind, the Prime Minister did not have one positive proposal to make. He asked a series of questions but never dealt with the issue of principle: is the status quo on our constitution satisfactory? In a further spasm of oppositionitis, he failed to answer this question. If what we are proposing is so wrong, why will he not commit his party to reversing it?
1067 If a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly are notions so at odds with the British constitution, why does he not pledge himself to abolishing them? If hereditary peers are so justifiable and their abolition so perverse, why does he not pledge himself to reinstate them?
The phrase that was missing from the Prime Minister's speech was "a thousand years of history". We did some historical research and discovered that a thousand years ago, the leader of this country was one Ethelred the Unready. An historian commented at the time that the Government were weak, the country was in a state of unrest, there was trouble over Europe, and shortly afterwards we were invaded and spent the next 200 years speaking French.
§ Mr. Redwood
Why was the right hon. Gentleman unready on Monday for his own debate, why did he run away from that debate, why did he lose it, and why did he make no comment afterwards?
§ Mr. Blair
I should like to make a little progress and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Of course 1,000 years has been not a period of constitutional paralysis but a period of massive constitutional development and change—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Rubbish".] Conservative Members say, "Rubbish," but I shall mention some of the changes. I know that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) may wish to return to the days of Ethelred the Unready. Over the past 1,000 years there has been the Magna Carta; the first Parliament, the Union between England and Wales in the 16th century; the civil war; the glorious revolution; the Union with Scotland in the 18th century and the Union with Ireland in the 19th century. There was the 19th century reform Act which introduced better voting rights; universal suffrage and the Parliament Act 1949.
I remind the right hon. Member for Wokingham that, if the Prime Minister thinks that nothing has changed in the past 1,000 years, he should remember that it was under the Conservatives that we signed the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty. I do not know how much they wish to be reminded of that. It is not true either to say that they have not recently changed the constitution. The Conservative party changed it for the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton). They changed it for him, but they will not change it in accordance with the wishes of the people of this country.
Let us be clear about that thousand years of change. The Tory party, when it existed, opposed most of the change. It was a Tory Prime Minister who in 1830, before the Reform Act 1832, said that the unreformed Parliament 1068 possessed the full and entire confidence of the country. It was a Tory Prime Minister who, in 1911, said that the House of Lords could not be improved on and that the idea of reforming it was the most dangerous one ever to be put before the country. It was the Tory party which, in the early part of this century, opposed women's suffrage. The Tory party has always wanted to hoard power in the hands of a small elite.
§ Mr. Marlow
We have had the knockabout; perhaps now we can have answers to some of the important questions. If there were to be a Scottish Parliament with powers in Scotland over health and education, would the right hon. Gentleman allow his Scottish Members of Parliament to vote on English health and education? If he cannot answer that question, all his devolution proposals have no credibility whatever.
§ Mr. Blair
I can answer it, and I will. I shall come to those issues in my speech, and the hon. Gentleman will get clear answers.
Apart from the flimsiest of fig leaves, the Prime Minister stands before us effectively as the candidate of no change. All is well. Keep it roughly as it is—1,000 years of history and change and then the end of history. Perfection is then reached and nothing more need be done. How bizarre a position when we think that, today, for many people outside the House, politics and our political system are probably less respected than they have been for generations. We have the most over-centralised Government in the western world.
Over the past few years, Parliament has been beset by allegations of sleaze and disreputable conduct, such that the Prime Minister had to set up two judicial inquiries—one into the conduct of Members of Parliament and the other into the conduct of Ministers. The House is probably held in lower regard than many of us would like, the system of holding Government to account is poor, and, after 28 pieces of local government legislation, it is a scandal that more money is spent by unelected, unaccountable quangos than by directly elected local government. This is happening less than three years before the start of the 21st century. By all means let us debate the detail of change, but we must answer the need for change in our country.
§ Mr. Blair
I shall come to devolution and the House of Lords in a moment. I shall shortly give way to the right hon. Gentleman, and I ask him to sit down for a moment.
Before I deal with devolution and the House of Lords, I shall consider devolution in a small way, in London, and speak about the way that it is governed.
London is the only capital city of any comparably sized country in the western world without its own strategic authority. I say again that, by all means, let us debate what type of change there should be, but when we ask Londoners and look around London and see what the absence of proper strategic planning has done, can any of us doubt the need for a proper, strategic, co-ordinating authority?
I return to Scottish and Welsh devolution. We believe that decentralisation is right and proper. Indeed, there is an inconsistency in the Conservative attitude to that. 1069 Conservatives say yes to subsidiarity in Europe but no to it in the UK. The Prime Minister reserved his loudest condemnation for devolution.
§ Mr. Renton
Is the right hon. Gentleman not in danger of adding to the contempt of Parliament to which he refers by his constant evasion, and that of the members of his shadow Cabinet, of the West Lothian question? I remind him that the question was first asked by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) 20 years ago. The hon. Gentleman sought an answer from the Labour party then at the same time as he published a book entitled "Devolution: the end of Britain?". Will the right hon. Gentleman give a specific, clear answer? For example, why should the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) be able to vote to abolish grant-maintained schools in my constituency when I shall not be able to vote on abolishing them in his?
§ Mr. Blair
As I have said, the Prime Minister reserved his loudest attack for devolution. [Interruption.] Conservative Members want the answer to the question by the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) and they are about to get it. May I have a little patience, please?
The protestations can be kept in proportion if we remind ourselves that, in the 1970s, the Conservatives proposed a Scottish Assembly, to be elected by proportional representation, with law-making and revenue-raising powers and with no reduction in the number of Scottish Members of Parliament. I am about to give the same answer that the Conservatives gave then, so the right hon. Gentleman can listen to it.
Let me remind the House of what was said in the Tory Scottish manifesto of 1974:Devolution is our policy and is the direct opposite of separatism. It can free Scotland from the frustrations of centralisation.I say, "Hear, hear" to that. Who was it who declared at Edinburgh, at a rally of the Conservatives:The establishment of a Scottish Assembly must be a top priority to ensure that more decisions are taken in Scotland by Scots"?It was one Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher. Who was it who in the same year wrote passionately of the need of the Tory party to prepare itself for a futurewhere a Scottish assembly is a permanent feature of political life, as it inevitably will be"?It was the man who is now Secretary of State for Scotland. Who said thatpeople had forgotten that it was the Tories who first developed the whole concept of a Scottish assembly … The party has an opportunity to recharge the batteries … and the proposed new Scottish assembly can be the catalyst"?It was his predecessor, now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Blair
I shall in one moment. Let me just complete this, because I know the right hon. Gentleman would like the full list. Who was it who said in answer to the West Lothian question: 1070We would strongly oppose any suggestion of bargaining Scottish representation at Westminster in order to obtain parliamentary approval to the Devolution Bill"?It was the Foreign Secretary. Naturally, the Conservative party is entitled to change its mind, but let it no longer insult our intelligence and that of the British people by pretending that a policy that it used to espouse in virtually every detail means the end of civilisation as we know it.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. The Conservative party in Scotland did advocate a Scottish Assembly in the 1970s, but it was because we could not answer the West Lothian question that we abandoned the policy.
He has still failed to answer the question: how could he justify to the House Scottish Members of Parliament coming down here in greater numbers than would be appropriate for England and voting on English business when they had no say on the same business in their constituency? It was because we could not answer that question that we abandoned the policy. The right hon. Gentleman should answer the question or abandon his policy.
§ Mr. Blair
That is complete and total nonsense. That is not the reason why the Conservative party abandoned the policy. That is precisely what the Conservative party says Northern Ireland Members of Parliament should be able to do, so it says that it is good enough for Northern Ireland, but not good enough for Scotland.
Let me just give the answer to the Secretary of State for Scotland, because that was an unwise intervention. This issue came up in the 1960s when Stormont was in existence, when a Labour Government were in power, and when the Conservative party used to try to defeat the Labour Government on the basis of help from Unionist Members of Parliament, as indeed Winston Churchill did in the 1950s. When a Labour Member raised the West Lothian question, the Conservative party said:Every Member of the House of Commons is equal with every other Member of the House of Commons and all of us will speak on all subjects and let us hear no more of this nonsense.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The whole point about the right hon. Gentleman's proposals for a Scottish Assembly is that Scottish Members of Parliament would not be equal to other Members. They would not be able to vote and speak on those matters that affected their constituents and, in that way, he would sow the seeds of the disintegration of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Blair
That is complete rubbish. That is a separate point altogether. The West Lothian question is about English Members of Parliament not being able to vote on Scottish matters. The right hon. Gentleman is raising the issue of Scottish Members of Parliament in relation to those matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but that is because they have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That is the very purpose of devolution.
§ Mr. Forsyth
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could answer why the last Labour Government thought, rightly, 1071 that a referendum would be appropriate only after the House had considered the legislation, so that people knew what they were voting for. Is not a pre-legislative referendum asking the people to vote for a pig in a poke?
§ Mr. Blair
Let me remind the Conservative party of what it proposes for Northern Ireland: a law-making assembly with around 90 members elected by proportional representation. There is no proposal to reduce the number of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. Had we not pledged ourselves to a referendum, the Conservatives would have opposed the legislation on those grounds.
I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland that question for a reason. This is what he said last June. This is not going back to the time when he may think he was a victim of teenage madness; it is going back just to last year. He said:It is high time Labour committed themselves to seeking endorsement for their programme through a referendum of the Scottish people.[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] No, the right hon. Gentleman never said, "Ah." Two days later, we announced a referendum, and he denounced us for it.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. We cannot have two right hon. Gentlemen on their feet at the same time. Who is giving way to whom?
§ Mr. Blair
I want to be generous to the Secretary of State, but he could not perhaps answer my first question. Let him answer this question when he comes to intervene again. Is it now clear from the Government's position that, if there is a Scottish Parliament and it has the will of the Scottish people, the Conservative party will not abolish it?
§ Mr. Forsyth
The right hon. Gentleman chose to misrepresent what I said. I made it perfectly clear that, if Labour proposed major constitutional change, the House should have a chance to consider the legislation and there should be a post-legislative opportunity. The idea of a pre-legislative referendum was denounced by the hon. Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who rightly said that it would be constitutionally improper to have a referendum on a proposal that had not been considered by the House.
§ Mr. Blair
I do not think that we quite got an answer to the question about abolishing a Scottish Parliament, but never mind.
1072 We support devolution; we oppose separatism. The enemy of the Union is no change, not devolution. To insist that the only choice open to Scotland is separation or the status quo is to defy wit, instinct and history. Of course we can celebrate and recognise the differences in our nations within the United Kingdom, because the unity of the United Kingdom should be based not on conformity, but on diversity.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I have been trying to intervene for some time. He has made many references to the concept of referendums. Is he opposed to the idea of a multi-option referendum in Scotland, which would include independence for Scotland?
§ Mr. Blair
With all due respect to the hon. Lady, that is her policy, but it is not ours. We are not in favour of that. I simply say that the Scottish National party and the Conservative party are at one in believing that the choice for Scotland should be between wrenching Scotland out of the United Kingdom or the status quo. I say that the best way to guarantee a fair deal for people in Scotland is sensible devolution, not separation, and not the status quo.
§ Mr. Walker
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Does he realise that, by repeating the agonies that we have gone through in Scotland over the impossibility of finding answers to matters such as the West Lothian question, he only draws clearly to the mind of everyone, myself included, other proposals? He will realise that I have never favoured what he is promoting. I am one of the people who suggested that we could find suitable mechanisms through the House to address the key matters. The day after the Queen's Speech, the Labour party could use the Scottish Grand Committee to pass all Scottish legislation, however controversial. That was the Alex Douglas-Home proposal, which I supported.
§ Mr. Walker
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your protection. If the Opposition are to quote what I supported, I want it quoted in full. My address included remarks about the Scottish Grand Committee, the mechanism that I recommended then, and now.
§ Madam Speaker
The hon. Gentleman knows that is not a point of order for me; it is a matter of argument across the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Blair
I think that it is fair to say that, as a Conservative in Scotland, the hon. Gentleman probably does need your protection, Madam Speaker.
1073 Let us turn from the West Lothian question to the Lord Lothian question. Let us state some facts about the other place. The large majority of those eligible—
§ Mr. Marlow
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman promised that he would answer the West Lothian question, but he has not done so yet. He has obviously moved on in his notes. May we have a short adjournment so that he can go back in his notes to find the answer to the West Lothian question?
§ Madam Speaker
I hope that I am not going to get any more bogus points of order. I want to get on with the debate.
§ Mr. Blair
The large majority of those eligible to vote in the House of Lords are hereditary peers. The vast majority of them are Conservatives. Indeed, there are more Tory hereditary peers than all the life peers of the other parties put together. It is perhaps hardly surprising then that the Tory campaign guide, which was published last week, statesThe hereditary principle 'an asset to democracy' … hereditary peers bring colour, tradition, youth and a wealth of experience to Parliament.That was topped by Viscount Cranborne, who said:Increasingly the amateur politicians who make up the hereditary peerage are coming to represent the common man in Parliament.Just why do Citizen Cranborne and the other Conservatives like the House of Lords so much? Why does the Prime Minister say that it works? Of course it works for the Tories—they have a majority of hereditary peers. In 1995–96, the Government won 96 out of 106 Divisions; 66 of them, more than two thirds, were won by the votes of hereditary peers. In case it is said that Labour Governments and Tory Governments suffer equally, that is not the case. On average, in a Session under a Labour Government, that Government suffered 68.5 defeats, but, under this Government, there have been 13.5 defeats.
The poll tax would never have got through the other place but for the hereditary element. [Interruption.] Hon. Members will be delighted to know that I have found my place in my notes. Let us consider what the Conservative party supports. Let us consider the hereditary peerage of Brocket. The first Lord Brocket bought the title from Lloyd-George; the second Lord Brocket was one of Britain's leading Nazi sympathisers; and the third Lord Brocket is serving five years for fraud. Before he went to gaol, he came to the House of Lords, spoke in favour of the poll tax and urged a crackdown on law-breakers.
To justify law-making powers on the grounds of birth is bad enough, but to try to justify such powers on the basis of a permanent Tory majority is almost admirable in its brass neck. Can one imagine if it were the other way round? Let us just suppose, as reasonable people—as we all are, of course—that the majority of hereditary peers 1074 were Labour. I bet that the joys of democracy would erupt among those on the Conservative Benches. There were times, of course, when they threatened to erupt. Who was it who told the Tory party conference that hereditary peers were "silly"? It was the Secretary of State for Wales. Who was it who wrote in 1981:Hereditary peers no longer command enough respect from the nation as a whole to justify their exercise of legislative powers … The House of Lords should be elected on a system of proportional representation, with life peers elected on a regional basis"?Who was it who wrote that? First, Citizen Cranborne, who has obviously changed his mind, and one William Waldegrave, one Ian Lang and one Tristan Garel-Jones. More than that, let me come to the most absurd part of the argument advanced by the Conservative party
§ The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. William Hague)
If the right hon. Gentleman is so interested in what I said 17 years ago, rather than trying to answer the West Lothian question that has been put to him by my hon. Friends, will he tell us whether he agrees with everything that he said 17 years ago, or indeed with anything that he said 17 years ago?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) should not persist. He will obviously not be allowed to intervene now.
§ Mr. Hague
It is very generous of the right hon. Gentleman to allow me to have changed my mind over the past 17 years. However, I am intervening on his speech, he is not intervening on mine. He said that those are views that I had espoused "over the years", implying during the past 17 years. Can he name an occasion on which I have done so in the past 17 years, and tell me whether he agrees with his election manifesto of 14 years ago?
§ Mr. Blair
It would be interesting to know when the Welsh Secretary stopped thinking that it was the right thing 1075 to do. Can he tell us whether the Conservative party—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] If he cannot tell us, can any of the prospective Tory leadership candidates tell us whether, if we abolish hereditary peers, the Conservative party's policy is to reinstate it? If they think that it is right to do so, why are they not committed to it?
Moreover, if the hereditary principle is right, why does the Prime Minister not appoint more hereditary peers? He has been Prime Minister for six years. If the principle is right, it should be followed; if it is wrong, it should be abandoned. It is to pile absurdity upon monstrosity to say that law-making by birth is right, but only for people born up to a certain time in history.
§ Mr. Blair
Did the strain of blue blood suddenly dry up around 1970? By all means, let us debate the replacement and the nature of a reformed second Chamber, and let the Conservative party—as I believe that many of the more sensible Conservative Members would like to do—join in that debate. The reason why they are not prepared to commit themselves to abolishing a Scottish Parliament or to reintroducing hereditary peers is that, deep down, they know that it is a sensible and serious debate.
Let us not insult the democratic intellect—an insult that conceals a naked, self-serving Tory interest—and try to dress it up as serving the interests of the common man. We should be attempting at every point to modernise our Government for today's Britain through sensible reforms, to let our constitution live and breathe. It is a means of achieving progress for our country, not an obstacle to progress.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
Those are matters of enormous concern. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking that, in the unlikely event of his becoming Prime Minister, all those constitutional measures would be debated in Committee on the Floor of the House?
§ Mr. Blair
They will be debated in the normal way, according to the conventions of the House. We have always made that clear. [HON. MEMBERS: "On the Floor of the House?"] They will be debated in the normal way. We have made that clear. I ask the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) whether, if we are elected—[Interruption.]
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the convention has always been for constitutional measures to be dealt with in Committee of the whole House, on the Floor. Yes or no?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Let us have a little order in the House. We are debating important constitutional issues; let us all hear them clearly.
§ Mr. Blair
I must say that it was the Prime Minister who said that the House was sovereign. It will be done in the normal way, according to the conventions of the House.
1076 I return to the question of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, and tell him that, if we are elected, I hope that Conservative Members will drop their absurd scaremongering campaign on constitutional change.
§ Mr. Blair
No; I must make some progress.
We also propose a freedom of information Act to open up our secretive processes. After the Scott inquiry, can anyone be in any serious doubt that such an Act is necessary? We need to roll back the tide of quangos and to have a revival of proper democratic local government. We need change in our parliamentary procedures to make them more accountable, and an examination of party political funding is long overdue. Not all that change can be made at once, of course, but the direction should be clear: decentralisation in place of central control; the assertion of the rights of the citizen against the state; and the modernisation of our democracy.
§ Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would it not help the House if you reminded the Leader of the Opposition that it is customary for him to sit down when you rise to your feet?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I have just made it clear to the hon. Member for Chingford that the Leader of the
1077 Opposition is not giving way. Since I made that clear, however, he has been on his feet three times, trying to intervene and to disrupt.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I have not finished. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that he will not give way. It is the custom of the House that, once that has been clearly stated, hon. Members do not continue to pressurise.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I was simply working on the basis that we have already established that the right hon. Gentleman regularly changes his mind. Therefore, I thought that he might change his mind also on this matter.
§ Mr. Blair
The Prime Minister and the Conservative party now set their face against any type of change. They say that that is to preserve the British constitution, but I say that it is more to preserve the Tory party and their own interests. They no longer form a Government—they form a self-preservation society.
The motion is a Government motion effectively on Opposition policy, which is extraordinary. It is part of the Government's negative campaign designed to scare people. The truth is that the Prime Minister has little vision of the future. He cannot tell us why anything should be done, but he can give us 1,000 reasons why nothing should be done. His weapon is fear. It is not just fear about the constitution but fear about everything—the nonsense about signing the social chapter and then 500,000 jobs go; the nonsense and lies from the Conservative propaganda machine about a hidden £30 billion spending campaign; although his party used to espouse it, he said that devolution is the "most dangerous idea" ever put before the British people. Make it up, say it with passion and repeat it—that is his course. He believes that it worked for him before—[Interruption.] The Conservatives believed that it worked for them before and will work again, but I think that they are mistaken.
To make the weapon of fear work, the Prime Minister needs credibility. When he attempts to frighten people, they remember—Mr. David Hunt (Wirral, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I understand that Opposition Members are complaining because the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary has passed the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) a note. I have very good eyes and I know exactly what happens in the House; I saw what happened, do not worry.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have been listening carefully to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and I have calculated that he has 1078 been asked 16 key questions in this debate. Is it possible for you to communicate to the right hon. Gentleman that he can continue his speech until he has answered them?
§ Madam Speaker
The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order; it is a point of argument.
§ Mr. Blair
That is all that the Tories have left—a few dirty tricks, and that is about it. Just look at them—has anyone every seen a party more obviously preparing for opposition?
I said that the Prime Minister's only weapon was fear and that the problem with his wielding that weapon was credibility. Why? Because people remember. They remember the man who took us into the exchange rate mechanism and said that it was the basis of his policy, and then it collapsed around his ears; the man who said that he would never raise tax before the last election and raised it 22 times; the man who said he would be at the heart of Europe and is now at the margins of Europe; the man who said he would end the beef war by last November but still cannot tell us when the ban is going to be lifted; the man who set up the Scott inquiry because of the worry about Ministers' accountability and then ignored the findings because they did not suit him.
The Conservatives no longer frighten, because they are no longer believed—they are not believed about themselves and they are not believed about us. Across the country, fear is being driven out by hope of change: hope that Britain need not be like this and can be better, hope that our constitution can be modernised
§ Mr. Blair
They do not like it. If they are so confident of their case, and if they believe that they can win the arguments on devolution, the economy and the state of our society and the health service, let them have the courage to call a general election. Frankly, that is all that they have left.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
The Prime Minister said at the start of the debate that he intended to make the constitution a major issue of the general election. Well, on the basis of this debate so far, I sincerely hope so. I do not think that I have ever heard a debate in the House on such a serious matter in which the Government have put together such a tawdry, thin and intellectually unconvincing case. Nor, I am bound to say, have I heard a debate greeted with responses from Conservative Members intended more to disrupt than further the debate than we have heard in the past half an hour. If ever there was a case of using scaremongering tactics and disruption to overcome the opposition when one's argument is thin, we saw it today—and that was not from the Opposition but from those who are supposed to be in government.
The Prime Minister made two points—he made them very badly, but he made them. The first was that Britain today is so well governed that nothing, or at least nothing substantial, needs to be done. I noticed that during the Leader of the Opposition's speech there was outrage among Conservatives at the suggestion that constitutional legislation may not be dealt with on the Floor of the House. However, Conservatives cannot argue—wrongly, in my view—that this Parliament is sovereign but then 1079 argue that this Parliament can control the next. That is a ludicrous proposition. Of course, we cannot give an undertaking as to how the next Parliament will deal with the matter.
Among the tiny measures of change included in the Prime Minister's speech was a significant one—that Parliament would sit for Sessions of two years. Really? That is up to Parliament to decide, not the Prime Minister. The next Parliament will decide that. It is as inappropriate for the Prime Minister to seek to bind the next Session of this Parliament as it would be for the leader of the Labour party to do so. The leader of the Labour party gave a perfectly reasonable answer to a serious question.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question that I asked the Leader of the Opposition? Does he believe that constitutional measures should always be dealt with on the Floor of the House?
§ Mr. Ashdown
That is for the next Parliament to decide, but let me see whether I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question. If he is correct, how is it that a major constitutional matter in this Parliament was not debated on the Floor of the House? I refer to the Maastricht treaty. If we could change the role of the House at that time, why not in future, too?
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You know better than anyone that the Maastricht treaty was indeed debated on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Order. It is not for the occupant of the Chair to comment on any particular answer, but I have a long memory of the Maastricht treaty.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The point at issue is that the House cannot bind the actions of the next Parliament. That is a principle related to the sovereignty of the House, one that the Conservatives keep talking about and to which I shall return later.
§ Mr. Ashdown
No; the hon. Gentleman must forgive me for not giving way at this stage. I want to make some progress.
The Prime Minister's first argument is that Britain is so well governed that nothing, or at least nothing substantial, needs to be changed. His second is that our constitution is so fragile that, if we were to change anything, we would risk changing everything, and the whole lot would simply fall apart.
Let me take the Prime Minister's first proposition first—that, since nothing substantial is wrong, nothing substantial should be done and our politics should, substantially, stay exactly as it is. I invite any hon. Member to leave the Chamber, go out on to the streets, 1080 stop any member of the public and put that proposition to them. They would get a very blunt, very frank and very different answer.
No one outside this place thinks that politics—the way in which we govern ourselves—is working effectively. They see a system that produces fiascos such as the poll tax or the dangerous dogs legislation because we cannot hold the Government to account and because of the way in which the House passes laws; they see people buying influence from political parties because the rules governing party funding are such a mess; they see scandals such as the arms to Iraq affair and the secrecy and abuse of power that was exposed by the Scott inquiry; they see Parliament tainted by scandals such as cash for questions; they see the introduction, for the first time in our history, of a watchdog to uphold parliamentary standards, because we are incapable of upholding them; they see Members who are presumed to be no longer honourable enough to give evidence without doing so on oath; and they see politicians speaking in a language that most people do not understand and behaving in ways that most people find bewildering at best and offensive at worst.
Those are not the signs of a healthy system that does not need change—they are the signs of a rottenness that has to be rooted out. That is a comment not just on the failings of the Government, but on the failings of the political system. Closed off, over-centralised and out of touch, our political system is not succeeding—it is failing and needs to be modernised. The public and outside observers know that. Are we in this House the only people in the country who do not know it? We should be debating not a question designed to protect the status quo, but how we can modernise our political system so that it is suitable for the next century, not rooted in the last one.
Look around outside the House and see how other institutions have changed in the past two or three decades. Modern firms trading in the global marketplace where Britain has to trade have stripped down the vertical hierarchies that our political system so lovingly preserves. They have devolved power and encourage decentralisation. They share decisions. This place would rather die than share a decision—and probably will in the end. Businesses respond to change; we resist it. Anything that would change the nature of our job and the way in which we work is immediately declared to be an attack on the heritage of the nation—by which, of course, we mean ourselves.
We in this place have become the nation's foremost conspiracy for job preservation. We would knock any trade union into a cocked hat. We need to change here, too, so that, instead of excluding people, we involve them; so that, instead of being closed off, our politics is opened up; so that, instead of power being obsessively centralised in Westminster and Whitehall, it is dispersed, and people are given responsibility to decide more for themselves in their local communities.
§ Mr. Michael Forsyth
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) that one answer to the West Lothian question is that matters affecting English constituencies should be voted on only by English Members in an English Grand Committee?
§ Mr. Ashdown
My right hon. Friend tells me that he said that there could be an English Grand Committee.
Let us deal with the West Lothian question straightforwardly and, I hope, comprehensively. The issue is simple: should the number of Scottish Members of Parliament be reduced if there were a Scottish Parliament? We are clear about that. The answer is yes. The level of representation should be similar to that for the rest of Britain.
§ Mr. Ashdown
That is up to the Labour party. It can argue its case. I am giving my party's view—a view that we have always held.
§ Mr. Ashdown
Let us say a figure in the order of 12 or 13.
The West Lothian question is a non-question. It is no more a question than is the West Belfast question. When Stormont existed, did Northern Irish Members of Parliament vote on education and health matters concerning England, Wales and Scotland? Of course they did. That was not a difficulty then, and it is not a difficulty now.
Let me move on a bit.
§ Mr. Ashdown
No, I have answered the right hon. Gentleman.
Go out and ask members of the public. There is ample evidence of what their response will be. Ask them whether they want a freedom of information Act—which the Government resist. Some 81 per cent. say yes. Why? They know that open government means better government.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. If the Member who is speaking does not give way, the other Member must resume his seat.
§ Mr. Ashdown
It is pretty bizarre—the right hon. Gentleman has a whole winding-up speech ahead of him.
Ask the public whether they want a Bill of Rights and 79 per cent. say yes. Why? They understand the need—God knows they do under this Government—to protect their individual freedoms against the arbitrary abuse of 1082 power. Ask the public whether they are happy with the way in which Parliament works. Only 34 per cent.—a little more than a third—are happy about the way in which this place works, but 50 per cent. are happy about the way in which their local council works. After all the withdrawal of power and all the time that the Government have spent deriding local councils and insulting them, the fact remains that far more people trust their local council and the way it works than trust this place. Yet the Prime Minister tells us that nothing should be changed.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I must make progress. If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene later, I shall give way.
Ask the Scottish and Welsh people whether they want more control over their Scottish and Welsh affairs, and the answer again is a resounding, overwhelming yes. They might reject it, but all that we ask is that they should be given the choice. Scotland is the only nation in the world with a separate legal system, but no legislature to determine the laws in that system.
Similar areas and populations all over Europe have their own assemblies, and remain firmly and proudly parts of the nation state to which they belong. I think of Bavaria, with its capital Munich, or Catalonia, with its capital Barcelona. I think of their regional autonomy and regional assemblies, but I do not see Germany or Spain splitting apart. Rather I see countries that have benefited and been strengthened because of the decentralisation of power, the accommodation of diversity and the fact that people are more responsible for the decisions that are made locally.
None of those countries has come unstuck over their equivalents of the West Lothian question. That is because the West Lothian question is no more a problem than was the West Belfast question when Northern Ireland had an assembly at Stormont. None of those countries sees greater self-determination for the historic nations within their borders as a threat to national unity. They see, rather, a means of preserving that unity. None of those countries has a problem devolving powers to raise or reduce tax levels.
The Prime Minister's argument was bizarre. Every parish council in this land has the power to raise tax. Is the Prime Minister's case really that we cannot trust to the Scottish people in a Scottish Parliament powers that are given to every English parish council? That is bizarre and makes no sense.
§ The Prime Minister
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me which body other than this House has the power to raise income tax, which is what we are talking about?
§ Mr. Ashdown
For someone paying taxes, council tax also has to be paid. A tax is a tax. I know that the Conservative party has tried to deceive and betray the country on income tax, pretending that it is the only tax that exists, but everybody knows that that is not true. They know that their local councils can raise and lower taxation and that that has a real impact on their household budgets.
It is not a Scottish Parliament that poses a threat to the United Kingdom—quite the opposite. It is the continuing and contemptuous rejection of the Scottish and Welsh will 1083 for more control over their affairs that poses the real threat to the Union. I do not normally find myself in agreement with Lord Tebbit, but he was right when he said a few days ago:We will not save the Union by mocking the idea of a Scottish nation.A week ago, the Prime Minister talked about a thousand years of British history being undone in a thousand days as if nothing in our constitution had changed for a thousand years. I hope that he will have time for a history lesson before the great debate gets under way in the general election campaign. Such claims are nonsense.
The Prime Minister fails to understand that the lesson of our history is exactly the opposite of what he claims. Our constitution is not a museum piece, but a living thing that has been changing, evolving and constantly renewing itself down the centuries. It is unrecognisable today from what it was 1,000 years ago; that has not been its weakness, but its strength. To argue, as the Prime Minister does, that tampering with our constitution would mean the collapse of Government, national disorder and the end of the United Kingdom as we know it, is rampant scaremongering that flies in the face of our history. Far from protecting our constitution, it denies its very strength.
The great irony and hypocrisy is that the very Government who tell us that the country will fall apart if anyone touches so much as a hair of our constitution are the same Government who have cut down our proud system of local government, destroyed parliamentary accountability in one area of government after another, and established such a tangle of arm's-length agencies that nowadays no Minister is responsible for anything.
They are the very Government who have created a jungle of unelected quangos, stuffed full of party political appointees. Those quangos now spend billions of pounds—one third of all public money—and meet in secret; their members are not required to declare their interests and have no accountability to the people they serve. How dare the very Government who have taken so much democracy out of our system tell us that we cannot change our constitution to put more democracy into it?
But then, resisting reform and democracy is what the Conservatives have always been about: it is what they have always done; it is their traditional role. Let us consider the following words:Our system of representation possesses the full and entire confidence of this country".Was that the Tory party chairman railing against proportional representation? No, it was the Duke of Wellington opposing the extension of the franchise in 1830. Let us consider another quotation:Touch one atom of our glorious constitution and the whole is lost.Was that the Prime Minister firing up the party faithful at a Conservative party conference? No, it was Lord Eldon, a Tory grandee, defending the rotten boroughs in 1832.
§ Mr. Ashdown
He probably is.
Who said the following words:Constitutional change … would endanger the very fabric of Britain … it would destroy in years what has been built up in centuries"?1084 Were those words said by a die-hard Tory opposing votes for women and the suffragettes to the very last? No, this time it was the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Ashdown
No, the hon. Gentleman must forgive me—I shall not give way.
Resisting reform is what Conservatives have always done. In the end, they have always lost, because the case for reform, the need for change and modernisation has always been too strong.
Despite Lord Eldon's protests, despite the scaremongering and despite the protests of the massed ranks of Conservative politicians to the Great Reform Act of 1832, that Act was passed. I assume—although I am not entirely certain—that no Conservatives here today would wish to see it repealed. Despite Lord Eldon's fears, that event did not become the constitutional equivalent of dropping the atomic bomb; it led to the gradual extension of the right to vote in this country, including, after bitter struggles, votes for women—and ultimately it led to the universal adult suffrage that we have today. I assume that no Conservative here today would like to see that reversed.
§ Mr. Ashdown
There is one; I knew that there would be—from Taunton, no less. I was going to say that I cannot vouch for every Conservative party conference delegate, but it seems that I cannot even vouch for the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson).
§ Mr. Nicholson
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about previous, successful and acceptable attempts to extend suffrage. Is his party committed—as I believe it might be—to introducing voting at 16?
§ Mr. Ashdown
The Liberal Democratic party is clear in its commitment: it is committed to votes at 16—as indeed we were to votes at 18, when we were undoubtedly opposed by Conservative Members.
At every stage along the way, opponents of reform scaremongered about the consequences of reform—from their defence of rotten boroughs to their opposition to votes for women. They scaremongered using precisely the same terms as the Prime Minister has used today, but time and again they were defeated because people understood in that age that the systems were not working—just as the system is not working today. People understood the need to modernise and improve our system of government.
§ Mr. Ashdown
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way, as I want to make progress and other hon. Members wish to speak. I have given way enough.
It is now clear that the Prime Minister is determined that the Conservatives will play their historic and traditional role, the role that they have always played: the reactionaries against change, the opponents of modernisation and the preservers of the status quo. They miss the national mood. Reform has risen up the political 1085 agenda precisely because it is so obviously needed in this country. Reform will always best be achieved if it is carried out not by one party, but on a cross-party basis. It is not too late for Conservatives Members to join the debate with that thought in mind—the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has already said that he would like to do so, and he is very welcome.
I know—and Conservative Members know—that many Conservatives support a freedom of information Act; other Conservatives support the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into British law. Many Conservatives believe, as Edmund Burke believed, in the importance of local decision making in the "little platoons" of our local communities.
There are Conservatives—there are even some in the Chamber—who support proportional representation.
There are even senior Conservative Ministers who—as the Leader of the Opposition so graphically showed—in days gone by supported the idea of a Scottish Parliament. That idea was clearly identified in the Conservatives' 1974 manifesto, on which the Prime Minister stood in the former constituency of St Pancras, North. But to listen to the tone of Conservative opposition today one would not believe that they ever argued for such things.
§ Mr. Ashdown
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am nearly at the end of my speech, and I want to leave time for other hon. Members.
The moment is right for our country to reflect on the workings of our constitution and our political system. It is the right moment to think of sensible reforms that will make our constitution and political system work better. It is the right moment to ensure that Britain enters the next century with a constitution fit for the modern age, not one preserved as a museum piece from a previous one. With this Parliament now in its dying days, that task must fall to its successor. The Liberal Democrats, at least, are determined to ensure that Britain does not have to wait another five years for the reforms to our political system that our country so desperately needs.
§ Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)
When I listened to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), I was very surprised that he appeared unable even to seek to address the West Lothian question. It had never occurred to me that he would come to a debate of this importance without a well-rehearsed answer to that question. But having listened to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and his extraordinarily inadequate response to that question, I reflected on the wisdom of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield.
I recognise that this debate is primarily about devolution and I was delighted to hear the passion and commitment that came from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. His decision to speak this afternoon has 1086 been justified by the way the debate has gone and by the inadequacies revealed in the speech by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield.
I shall restrict my contribution to a discussion of the future of the House of Commons.
When I entered the House in 1979, we were embarked on a review of the Select Committee system—the so-called St. John-Stevas reforms. They were broadly welcomed and, by and large, they are believed to have worked. In the intervening 18 years, however, we have not really sought to address our way of working. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) proposed some sensible reforms which have made our lives easier, but even their keenest advocate could not describe them as fundamental. We need a fundamental review of the way in which the House operates as a result of the change in the composition of the House on Conservative and Labour Benches.
Whether we like it or not—I do not—we are in the era of the full-time, career politician. That is a major constitutional departure. Not so long ago, the majority of Members on both sides of the House were part timers and proud of it, and we were not worse legislators as a result. We now have a legislature of 650 Members. In all honesty, how many of us believe that, even if we wanted to, we could all be fully engaged in activities in the House?
We have to think carefully about whether we should substantially reduce the numbers in the House. Most comparable legislatures have about 400 Members of Parliament who do their jobs very effectively. If we were to move to 400 Members of Parliament, we would each have an electorate of about 100,000, give or take a few. That would be an appropriate number if we retained—as I wish we would—the first-past-the-post system.
As we have become a full-time-career House, virtually everyone wishes to become a Minister and join the Executive. I do not believe that that is a fundamentally good position for a legislature. We need to think carefully about whether, as well as reducing the numbers in the House, we should seek to raise the status of senior Members, in particular Chairmen of Committees. For example, it is extraordinary that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is not rewarded by at least Minister of State status. I should like a system whereby, for example, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Health was as important a policy maker and contributor to the health debate as the Minister of State for Health.
If we are a full-time-career House—and that is inevitable, although not desirable—we need to raise the status and position of senior Members. In other words, we need to produce a career pattern within the legislature, not just within the Executive. I hope that the House will reflect on that.
I also wonder whether we need so many members of the Executive. Comparable Governments elsewhere in Europe generally have two Ministers per Department. That is more than adequate for the political job that Ministers are inevitably called upon to do.
§ Mr. Eggar
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have only 10 minutes. I should love to give way, but the 10-minutes rule makes that difficult.
1087 I would go further. I wonder why, almost uniquely in Westminster, the Prime Minister of the day can appoint Ministers only from the House or occasionally the House of Lords. In other systems it is expected and accepted that a Prime Minister can appoint Ministers from outside the legislature.
I can think of no reason why a Minister who had been so appointed could not speak at the Dispatch Box, although of course he could not vote. There would be no reason why such a Minister could not take a Bill through a Standing Committee although again he could not vote. In an increasingly complex Government at a time when government is becoming ever more difficult, it is only right that there should be a wider pool from which the Executive could be recruited.
That leads to another issue. If we had fewer Ministers and some of those Ministers were from outside the legislature, we would have to re-examine the present assumption of the total party independence of senior civil servants. I value the British tradition of civil servants' independence, but when the boundaries between policy and management have become ever more blurred—that is inevitable—I wonder whether it is any longer tenable for junior Ministers to be responsible for quite low-level decisions while senior civil servants, at least theoretically, are in charge only of management and administration.
We should discuss whether permanent secretaries or deputy secretaries at Departments of State should be appointed on contracts for the duration of a Parliament, it being fully understood that a new Government would not automatically renew their contracts. In practice, two or three senior civil servants at the top of each Department would become part of the Administration rather than the independent civil service. That would produce considerable advantages, particularly in terms of the quality of management in the civil service and the implementation of policies.
As I looked around and propounded my fairly radical views, I saw on both sides of the House a look of scepticism and bewilderment.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)
This is a wide-ranging debate and I shall concentrate on my nation of Wales in the context of its place in the United Kingdom. I start with the obvious proposition that the Conservative party, as always, is against constitutional change, whether it is in Wales, Scotland or the House of Lords. It is the traditional defence of the status quo.
Before I deal with the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative Welsh conference at a hotel somewhere across the border in north Wales, let me say why devolution is needed in Wales.
It was my privilege on two occasions in 1976 and 1977 to speak from the Government Dispatch Box on the Scotland and Wales Bill and then the Wales Bill. I promised the House that, whatever happened, we would return to the issue in due course. Now, 20 years have gone by and we make it clear that, at the earliest opportunity after the next election, we will fulfil the promise that I made to the House 20 years ago.
In 1977 we believed that extending democracy through participation and accountability in Wales would help to preserve and strengthen the unity of the United Kingdom. 1088 It will not harm the unity of this kingdom, but enhance it. The quality of decision making will be improved because the decision makers, drawn from all over Wales, will be attuned to the needs of Wales.
Decentralisation of power to the Welsh Office was the precursor of devolution, and in my time, with the addition of agriculture, industry and education, we doubled that office's size. However, it was never the intention that those new responsibilities would permanently be carried out by one man. It is certainly one of the most difficult tasks and it is probably even more difficult in Scotland. When one weighs the red boxes that come at the weekend and tries to master the functions of eight functional colleagues in England, it is no little task. I believe in democratic accountability. The Principality is entitled, within the context of the unity of the kingdom, to have substantial control of its own domestic policies, particularly in environmental and social matters. Let the voters of Wales decide those matters.
The Conservatives have always been against change. They were against the establishment of a Secretary of State for Wales. It was Harold Wilson who appointed the first, more than 50 years after it was deemed desirable for Scotland. Mind you, it was typical of the Conservatives that, once the office had been created, they kept it clutched it to their bosoms and gave it to their nominees, one after the other. Incidentally, that is the answer to the Secretary of State for Health and his threats.
What have we had since? A series of Secretaries of State for Wales, but not one with an electoral base in Wales. Mr. Peter Walker, then the right hon. Member for Worcester, and the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) came and went. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—of all people—was appointed, but refused to sleep in Wales. Mind you, the fact that he kept his time in Wales to a minimum meant that he did less damage. At the end of the financial year, despite the appalling situation in Wales, he returned some of the money that had been hard won by the Welsh Office to the Treasury, and he thought he would get some brownie points from the Prime Minister. Now we have the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who has allegedly improved on his predecessor by learning the Welsh national anthem, but nothing has really changed.
What did we have before we had Secretaries of State for Wales? We had a series of appointed Ministers who were asked to add a few minutes each week to their existing responsibilities. We had David Maxwell Fyfe—known familiarly in Wales as Dai Bananas—who was the right hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby; Keith Joseph, then the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East; and Dr. Charles Hill, then the hon. Member for Luton, who was also known as the radio doctor. They and others came and went, looking after Wales in their spare time.
The Prime Minister talks of a thousand years, but I doubt he knows what has really happened in that thousand years—he has certainly got the dates of the Acts of Union wrong. We took 400 years to right the wrongs done to the Welsh language in the Act of Union of 1536, whereby one could be deprived of one's office for speaking Welsh. Throughout history, the story is the same. In 1846, three commissioners sent to look at the conditions in Wales said that our depravity was the result of using the Welsh language. Even in my grandfather's boyhood, the "Welsh Not" was passed from one child to 1089 the next when they were caught speaking Welsh in school. Those are the parts of our history with which the Prime Minister is totally unfamiliar.
§ Mr. Morris
Not to that hon. Gentleman.
The way in which Wales is now governed is exactly like that of a colony with its governor—a nominated appointee, with the executive role of Government carried out by quangos and nominated councils. The Conservative party has been the minority party in Wales since 1852—the last 140 years of the Prime Minister's 1,000 years—so what do the Conservative Government do? They scour Wales for suitable nominees to carry out the executive roles of Government.
Who do they find? While having a splendid lunch in Swansea, Mr. Peter Walker met a man who happened to be agreeable to him and set him up as the chairman of the Welsh Development Agency and, to give him even greater comfort, also made him Welsh governor of the BBC. He then discovered that the chairman had committed more hours than the working week allowed to both those functions. The Public Accounts Committee found the chairman—and the board—of the WDA out and he had to be sent packing. That is the calibre of person who is found during the casual trips made by Welsh Secretaries to Wales.
It is not good enough to be treated as a colony. If we believe in democracy, the constitution must develop to meet the needs of the people. Does anyone really believe that the extension of democracy will not enhance and improve our constitution? The Leader of the Opposition spelled out in detail the way in which the constitution has developed over the years, opposed time after time by the Tory party. The Tory party has not changed its spots, but the time will come when there will be an extension of democracy in Wales and Scotland.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
We started the debate with some pretty sorry contributions from the other side of the House, with the haughty, preachy and dodging speech from the Leader of the Official Opposition, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), followed by the sophistry and rumour-mongering of the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). Speaking from my experience of the Liberal Democrats in my area of Sussex, I know that they are experts in scaremongering.
Compare those speeches with that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which was straightforward and thoughtful—[Laughter.] The speech may not have struck sparks with Opposition Members, but it was a straightforward, thoughtful and positive argument against change.
I do not actually share my right hon. Friend's views on constitutional change, and I want to develop some thoughts along those lines. Constitutional reform has not kept pace with reform in other areas in this country. There has been too little improvement, and that has contributed to the complete lack of respect that so many people outside this House have for people inside it, and to the 1090 lack of interest in good government. That feeling is not healthy scepticism, but all too often downright mistrust. On that basis, above all else, I argue for a Bill of Rights.
Conservatives believe that the Government are the people's servant, not their master. The Government do not dictate, and we have therefore cut back regulations and controls during our period in office; we have reduced state ownership and increased personal ownership; and we have widened choice and returned power and trust to people. The British constitution, being unwritten, is flexible, which is an advantage; however, rights are not inalienable but conditional, and I believe that we must have a yardstick against which decisions can be made in respect of setting one right over another right.
We can extend the commitment that we made in 1957, when we were one of the first signatories to the convention on human rights in the Council of Europe. That was six years before the treaty of Rome created the European Community. The convention allows individual petition to a court in Europe; would it not be so much wiser to have that same right of individual petition to a court in this country? We have to acknowledge, however, that a Bill of Rights is not an automatic safeguard. It tends to play a minor role in protecting human rights, and we must therefore take further steps in order to make it effective. I shall suggest one or two for consideration.
Should there not be a human rights assessment in every Bill? Should not the Speaker, the Attorney-General or a Committee of Law Lords certify compliance with that statement? Or perhaps there should be a Special Standing Committee to review the matter, with the help of a human rights commissioner or commission, or perhaps a Joint Committee of both Houses—a hybrid of a Select Committee and a Standing Committee—should advise after the first Second Reading, in whichever House it took place.
That is skimming the surface, but I believe not only that we need a Bill of Rights because the country would benefit from it, but that the House should build into its procedures a way of applying that Bill of Rights to our everyday law making.
There has been much talk about reform of the House of Lords. The second Chamber in the British parliamentary democratic system is more important than that in any other democratic system in the world. The anachronism of a hereditary and appointed second Chamber in a long-established democracy is without question. However, I am deeply worried about the reforms outlined from the Labour Benches, because they ensconce in that Chamber the position of placemen and placewomen, doing away with the wisdom, on almost any subject under the sun, of hereditary peers and senior members of the citizenry who are appointed as peers, and there is no improvement in accountability.
§ Mr. Rathbone
They are not elected to the second Chamber. No part of the Labour party recommendation says that they will be elected. That would change my approach to the Labour party's suggestions. They have to be elected. I believe that they have to be elected on a different basis, and to a different time scale, to that on which we are elected in this chamber.
1091 There is no knock-on effect against the monarchy. One need only consider the majority of the other member states of the European Union that have democratic monarchies and an elected, not hereditary, second chamber.
Interestingly, in a recent Sunday Times poll, two thirds of Members of the Upper House supported such reforms. It is not a new step for a Conservative Government. Conservative Governments introduced life peers in 1958, women peers in their own right in 1958, and hereditary peers in 1963—although the pressure of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) helped in that process—and the same year a Conservative Government gave the right to disclaim peerages.
Finally, I shall mention the basis of the system by which we are elected to this House. Electoral reform is not new—it is not a passing fad—although it has been highlighted recently in party political debate. We have made quantitative reforms in the past century: broadening the franchise, embracing all males, then all females, lowering the voting age, allowing those on holiday or living abroad to vote in the way they can now. Now we need qualitative reform to make the value of each vote more equal.
The election as a result of which I entered the House in February 1974 was a marvellous illustration of how our first-past-the-post system could give a wrong outcome, because, countrywide, the Conservative party received far more votes than the Labour party, yet the Labour party won more seats in the House of Commons—only by a narrow majority, but it shows how disproportionate our system has become.
I believe that there are four criteria for choosing an electoral system. For a firmly rooted democracy, there should be a close relationship between a representative and his constituency, so I argue for a system that maintains the single-member constituency.
For national unity, there should be representation of minorities, especially nationally based minorities, of which we already have some members in the House, to encourage broad-based national parties' representation in areas where sizeable but no majority support is found. That could be said to be true for the Labour party in the south of England; it is certainly true for the Conservative party in Glasgow and other areas in the north of England. For ease of understanding, the system must be simple for the voter, but let us not complicate that process of analysis; a complicated system of elections can allow the voter to exercise a simple choice. All those criteria should be borne in mind.
To argue for such changes is not disloyal to the Tory past as the party committed to protect individual rights as well as responsibilities, and to support properly founded constitutional democracy. Ownership of an equally valid vote and the opportunity to cast it effectively is the essence of freedom and the cornerstone of national competence, without which I fear that we shall never properly re-create and then conserve a United Kingdom. That important point was mentioned repeatedly by the Prime Minister. Of all people in this country, it is most important to the young of today—the leaders of tomorrow—because they have more to gain or more to endure than most of us. We should always bear that in mind.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
This debate will make better reading for the future if we consider the issues against the background, not only of a forthcoming general election, but of a much more serious matter—the crisis of representative democracy, not only in Britain but throughout the western world. Power is too centralised; it is too secretive. It is increasingly authoritarian, not only in the parliamentary system but in the political parties. Fundamental reforms are required.
I want to address primarily the question of Europe, on which I intervened on the Prime Minister, but before I do that I should say that I have introduced two major constitutional Bills into the House, neither of which we have debated.
If we are seriously to look at our constitution afresh, there is a powerful case for saying that we should transform ourselves into a democratic federal and secular commonwealth. I have argued that case. I am not trying to persuade anyone because I do not have time to do so, but we should have a charter of rights; we should have voting at 16. A person who is old enough to be in the forces at 16 or to get a job—if they can—and get married, is of the right age to vote.
I am totally opposed to positive discrimination for women, for I am in favour of equality of representation for women. Every constituency should elect a woman and a man. I am for parliaments, not only for Scotland and Wales, but for England, which disposes of the West Lothian question once and for all. Why should England be denied control of its affairs?
I am in favour, and have been all my life, of a freedom of information Act. I want to liberate local authorities, to liberate the Church of England from the humiliation of having a Prime Minister appoint its bishops and archbishops. I am in favour of the Crown retiring with honour and a good pension to Buckingham Palace, and of the Lords being dispatched, on the grounds that democracy means that we must be able to remove our rulers, and we cannot remove hereditary or appointed Members of the House of Lords.
I have long believed that the Irish people must determine their future, and I believe that we should consider that matter properly and put it to the public in a referendum after the real one—not a pre-legislative referendum.
I admit that I am a republican, and have been for a long time, but I do not believe and never have believed that criticism of the royal family has played any part in that matter, and I watched that awful, cheap and nasty television programme on the monarchy with dismay. The Queen did not ask for the job; she did not choose it; she was born in the right bed of the right parents at the right time. The problem with the monarchy is about the Crown, not the royal family.
The trouble is that Crown powers are enormous. Prime Ministers can go to war without consulting Parliament. The Prime Minister can sign treaties without consulting Parliament. The Prime Minister makes laws in Brussels without consulting Parliament. I was on the Council of Ministers for four years. In 1977 I was President of the Council of Energy Ministers, and every time I agreed to a minor piece of legislation, I was using the Crown prerogative of treaty making.
1093 The patronage that stems from the Crown is enormous. The past 10 Prime Ministers have put 800 people in the House of Lords, and appointed every bishop, judge and Minister.
It is a wholly undemocratic system of patronage, and it lies at the heart of the quango and the culture of subservience—everybody bowing and scraping, and saying, "Yes, Sir John; oh yes, my Lord; oh yes, your Grace; oh yes, your Majesty." It is no wonder that so many people are happy to go into the European Union, given that we have been run by the Romans, William the Conqueror, the Stuarts, William of Orange and the Hanoverians. Being run by Jacques Santer is what we are trained for—to follow foreigners who tell us what to do. That is an aspect of the Crown.
Another matter that I mention in passing is that I must tell a lie to sit in Parliament. It is not an important one. Last time that I took the oath, I said to the Clerk, who was very polite—he did not query it—that, as a dedicated republican, I solemnly declare, and so on. Why should people have to tell a lie to sit in the House in order to represent their constituents? Why do we not have a decent oath, like, "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth"? If we are the High Court of Parliament, there should be a little bit of truth instead of pledges of allegiance to the Crown. That matter must be dealt with.
My real purpose in rising is to deal with the biggest constitutional question of all, which has only been touched on: our relations with the European Union. I am a passionate European. Like many people, I lost an uncle in the first world war, and a brother and many friends in the second.
I am a passionate democrat, but I am not prepared to accept that the royal prerogative should make laws again through Brussels, which it has been unable to do since 1649. After 1649, Parliament made the laws; after 1972, the Council of Ministers made the laws in secret. The European Parliament is not the one that sits in Strasbourg; the Council of Ministers is the real Parliament. It passes the laws and votes in secret, and we are then obliged to follow it.
It is my conviction that, if we adopt the single currency, it will destroy democracy in Europe, not just in Britain. A new political class has now appeared. Its members have a lovely time in Brussels. They are not elected; they talk to each other and hold press conferences. We can get rid of a Prime Minister on polling day—Jim Callaghan went down the pan, and I hope that the present Prime Minister follows his example—but we cannot get rid of Neil Kinnock on polling day. I mention him only to show that I am impartial—I would not mention Sir Leon Brittan.
People who cannot be disposed of on polling day do not have to listen to anyone. When I go to Chesterfield, every street sweeper, doctor or home help is my employer, but if a commissioner goes to Chesterfield or anywhere else, he is above it all.
As I said to the Prime Minister in an intervention, if a central bank is to run everything, the Treasury will move to Frankfurt. It will then be an offence under the Maastricht treaty for a new Minister of Finance, or whatever he is called, or Prime Minister, even to try to 1094 influence the central bank. If we hand over public expenditure, taxation and interest rates to a central bank, we shall deliberately have abandoned control of our own country.
All that will lead to cynicism. If a change in economic policy cannot be brought about by voting on polling day, people will be impotent, and the result will be that turnout will fall. That will not be the only problem, but the cynicism about modern politics is that we are all converging on a course of action that I do not necessarily follow.
In America, Mr. Clinton, the most powerful man in the world, was elected by one in five Americans. Four out of five Americans did not register, did not vote or voted against him, and he controls the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. What state will we be in if people do not vote because by voting they cannot change their tax laws, public expenditure, interest rates and, I might add, their agricultural and many other policies? That is the danger.
I say that I am a fanatical European because I am: this is just as a big a threat to voters in Germany, France and Spain as it is to voters in this country. If we had commissioners in London instead of a Parliament, would I be an Anglo-sceptic because I was against it? Of course I would not. It is a democratic argument.
At 3.30 today, I introduced a Bill—just printed, it will never be debated—which repeals sections 2 and 3 of the European Communities Act 1972 so that the Commons will have the final word. That is the best way to deal with it. There would be no fuss about it, and every other member state should do the same. It would put subsidiarity on a statutory basis. If people in Brussels knew that all their proposals had to go through all the different Parliaments, they would be much more careful about their headlong rush into a single currency.
I am the Member for Chesterfield, and proud of it, but I know that my constituents own the powers that I exercise. I do not own them. I cannot borrow the powers from them and give them away. As I have said in the House before, and I say it again on the eve of an election, I am not prepared to give away my constituents' power. I believe not in the sovereignty of Parliament but in the sovereignty of the people, which is why I am wearing a tie in honour of Tom Paine. I do not believe in the sovereignty of Parliament; sovereignty belongs to the electorate, and we, as temporary stewards of their sovereignty, have no right to give it away.
I wish to make it clear, as I have in the past and will during the election, that I am not prepared to vote to give away the electorate's sovereignty. People are entitled to ask that question, and they must find their own answer in their own way. We are confronting a democratic question, which is just as important as the West Lothian question and all the issues that have been raised so far in the debate.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and I have one or two things in common: he served in the Royal Air Force, and so did I; and some of his views on Europe are not far from mine. The difference is that he was born into affluence and I was born into poverty, so I approach matters from a slightly different viewpoint.
1095 I have never opposed change. What I demand is that change must be viable, properly structured and seen to be fair, because if it is not seen to be fair it will not be sustainable. I have been involved in the constitutional debate for 50 years, and my views today are the result of those years. I am always amused when people quote back to me things that I have allegedly said or done. My constituents will tell them that the problem is that they know exactly where I stand, because I do not change on constitutional matters. I did not do so 50 years ago; I did not do so in the sixties; and I supported the Alec Douglas-Home proposals. Anyone who wants to look at my election literature in depth will realise that.
Today, I look at Labour's proposals. Is it fair for 83 per cent. of United Kingdom voters who live in England to have, as Labour proposes, a Scot as a Prime Minister and Scottish constituency Members as Foreign Secretary, probably Chancellor of the Exchequer, Scottish Secretary, Patronage Secretary, possibly Transport Secretary, some of the Law Officers, and many of the Ministers of State? If that happens, English voters will say that the Scots are running Westminster, and they will be right.
§ Mr. Walker
I have only 10 minutes, so I do not have time to give way.
English voters will ask whether that is fair. It is fair if we have a unitary Parliament, but, in addition to the Scots running Westminster, Labour proposes to allow the 73 Scottish Members to come to this House to vote on changes in English education, law and order, local government, the environment, and transport and roads. They will be able to vote for change here, and some of them will end up as Ministers in some of those Departments. Will that be seen to be fair, given that English Members cannot vote on those matters affecting Scotland?
Worse still, Scottish Members cannot vote or speak on education, law and order, local government, the environment, roads and so on—all matters that affect their constituencies. They will become part-time Members of Parliament; perhaps they should be paid a part-time salary. Whatever happens, it will not be seen to be fair.
The West Lothian question was not dealt with today.
§ Mr. Walker
No, I shall not give way, because I only have 10 minutes.
As for the West Belfast question, there is a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland needs local government with all the decision-making powers that it has in the rest of the United Kingdom. It also requires a Northern Ireland Grand Committee. I shall deal with Grand Committees later.
Under Labour's proposals, the Scots would be seen to be running Westminster and also Edinburgh. Would that be fair to the 83 per cent. of voters living in England? That is the question we must ask ourselves. Would it be seen as fair by the people living in England, who, after all, are the majority of the taxpayers and voters by a long wayx2014;83 per cent. is not a tiny proportion.
1096 Would it be fair for Scotland, in such circumstances, to keep all 73 of its Members of Parliament? Would it be fair for Scotland to retain the Goschen-Barnett formula? Would it be fair for the Scottish work force to have to pay the tartan tax, without disadvantaging them in the jobs market? Those are the questions that must be addressed throughout the United Kingdom.
It is interesting that the poster to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister drew attention states that there will be no increase in income tax in Scotland in five years. How can that make sense, when Labour proposes to give powers to the Scottish Assembly to raise tax? It is crazy.
Would it be fair for people who work for Scottish firms and who are paid from Scotland not to have a say about the tartan tax and the rate at which it would be implemented? We must consider the fairness of the proposals.
I am not opposed to devolution. I am in favour of devolving decision-making as far down as is practical, but it must be structured properly, and it must be seen to be fair by the entire electorate, not just by a few people who want something.
When people say to me, "It's all right for you, Mr. Walker," I remind them that I am a minority of a minority: I am a Scottish Conservative. The Scots are a minority in the United Kingdom, and we receive a minority of the votes in Scotland.
Matters would have been different if we had introduced the Alec Douglas-Home proposals, which I supported. Labour's proposals are unfair, unworkable and—worse than that—they are dangerous. They will lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. The backlash will come not necessarily in Scotland, but certainly in England, because of the unfairness of the proposal.
The Liberals' proposals for a federal structure are theoretically viable. The problem is that they have been peddling them for 100 years, and they have not yet sold them to the vast majority of the electorate—the 83 per cent. who live in England. Until the Liberals can do that, their proposals will remain a theoretical possibility.
Labour's proposals are not necessary. We should examine the proposals discussed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which Labour could implement the day after the Queen's Speech, if they ever became the Government. They could use the Scottish Grand Committee to put through all Scottish legislation.
That could be achieved under a Labour Government, because they would have a majority of Scottish Members of Parliament. It would pose no risk to the Union, it would meet the demands for the Scots to have their own say, and the Scottish Grand Committee could meet in Edinburgh or anywhere else in Scotland, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has shown so clearly. Other Members of Parliament who are Ministers could attend, as has been shown. That is a viable proposition, which could be implemented by a Government with a majority of Scottish Members of Parliament.
We must consider what is practical, viable and fair. Let us get away from all the grand theory. My interest in life is aviation. The world knows about all the plane crashes that have occurred. Theoretically, the planes should have flown; practically, they did not. We must examine the practical aspects.
Would it be practical for English Members of Parliament to go out into their constituencies and tell their constituents what is being proposed? Is it sensible? Is it saleable? The 1097 product is not saleable. Is it saleable for Scottish Members of Parliament to go back to Scotland and say that they want to introduce a system which they know will produce a backlash and cause problems?
The Scots will be asked to vote on the proposal before the legislation has been through Parliament. The idea is crazy. How can one vote on something until one knows the exact contents of the proposal?
§ Mr. Walker
I have read that ghastly book—that is why I can speak about the matter. I read most things. The problem that Labour Members have is that they do not read in detail what is being proposed by their party. It may be all right for them in their closed little niches in Scotland, but they should ask the Scottish people whether they want to buy a pig in a poke. When Tam tells them that, they will believe him and listen. The package is unsaleable, unworkable and dangerous.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
The debate is about the constitution. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I give only a brief part of my limited time to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—not because I think that that is a matter of no importance; far from it.
My starting point is that, particularly in the case of Scotland, there has for many years been growing evidence of the wish of the Scottish people to have more control over their own affairs. We may have misjudged that, but we have already anticipated the problem by saying that the first step is to hold a referendum. If, on the basis of that referendum, the Scottish people do not want to proceed with devolution, it will be scotched there and then. The same will apply to the people of Wales and people in this country.
I am not upset by that. To those who worry about the unity of the United Kingdom and the threat that would be posed to it, I would say that I speak as an Englishman, rather than as a member of any other part of the Union of the United Kingdom, but I genuinely do not feel the slightest resentment at the thought that Scottish, Welsh and other Members of Parliament will continue to take an active part and bring their own experience to debates that concern only England. They are my fellow-countrymen. We are part of the Union of the United Kingdom, which is a real Union indeed.
Our historical experience might lead us to the opposite conclusion from the one that the Prime Minister drew. If, year after year and decade after decade, one frustrates the wish of a national group within the United Kingdom for greater self-government, one is likely to alienate those people, push apart the Union and make them think about the false solution of separation and the establishment of a separate state.
To my Northern Ireland friends, I say that I am not sure what the answer would be. Looking back over the history of Ireland and England since the 19th century and the first proposition of home rule, I wonder whether—allowing for the fact that there had to be two assemblies, not one—if we had been able to offer the Irish people home rule in 1098 the 1890s or even before the first world war, we might still be the Union of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The fact that that was resisted turned what was then a movement for home rule into a demand for separation and separate existence and identity. The effect may be the opposite of that which the Prime Minister anticipates.
I shall discuss briefly several issues before I come to the really big one—and I am sure that hon. Members know what that is. We must reform the House of Lords: it is laughable to try to pretend that the hereditary tradition and composition can continue. It simply cannot. There is also a case for electoral reform—if we had more time, I am sure that hon. Members would develop that argument more thoroughly. I have never supported proportional representation, but I do appreciate the case for the alternative vote.
We have seen 18 years of minority rule by the Conservative party. It has never exceeded 45 per cent. of the vote in any election, yet the Conservatives have had huge majorities in Parliament. The positions of Members of Parliament are strengthened if they can say that they represent the majority of their constituents, as a result of a single ballot or a second-preference vote. I think that that is an acceptable constitutional reform, which would have some effect on parliamentary representation and on the ultimate numerical strengths in Parliament.
I also seek a general improvement in the methods of making Ministers responsible and accountable to Parliament. There is a case—although I do not have enormous confidence in the likely outcome—for a freedom of information Act. We would have to examine its provisions very carefully, as they might not work quite as people would wish. I think that we should also consider strengthening our Select Committee system. Select Committees have performed very well since the St. John-Stevas reforms, and I think that they could be even more effective if given greater powers and more staff.
Because I believe that the Executive must be made more responsible to Parliament and that only the elected representatives of the people have the right to make the laws that govern our land, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I wish to see a radical change in our constitutional relationship with the European Union. Over a vast and ever-growing area of our national life, the United Kingdom Parliament and Government no longer make the laws or take the big decisions about our economic and external policies. The European Union, the Brussels Commission and, increasingly, majority voting in the European Council fulfil that function. If the laws of our country are in conflict with the superior laws of Brussels, our laws must give way.
I remind the House of the comments of the then President of the Commission, Jacques Delors, to the European Parliament nearly nine years ago—I thought at the time that they gave a terrible warning. On 6 July 1988, he said:Ten years hence 80 per cent. of economic legislation, and perhaps even our fiscal and social legislation as well, will be of Community origin".That was almost 10 years ago, but what is the position today? Hon. Members have attempted to elicit the score, only to be told that the information could not be made available except at inordinate cost.
1099 Nevertheless, some figures have been produced. In a written answer on 28 January this year at column 131, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster revealed that 236 statutory instruments enacted European Community directives in 1992. There were 134 in 1993, 198 in 1994 and 211 last year. Those statutory instruments are equivalent to Acts of Parliament—they are not regulations.
I maintain that the input of Community legislation into Britain is probably greater than that of domestic legislation. I might frighten hon. Members if I tell them the number of EC regulations that have been adopted. Some 1,750 regulations were adopted in 1994, and more than 3,000 in 1995.
In the same speech, Mr. Delors said:what I am afraid of is that some of these national parliaments are going to wake up with a shock one day and that their outraged reaction will place yet more obstacles in the way of progress towards European Union.Is it not time to wake up? We must not strain at gnats and swallow camels in terms of constitutional deformation and loss of democratic power. It is time to reclaim our powers through the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield presented to the House this afternoon.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
We always listen to the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) with both interest and respect. He has made a serious speech, encompassing some very important points. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not engage him in debate on his latter points—much as I am tempted to do so. I am also tempted by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who made a typically idiosyncratic, but entertaining and fascinating, speech.
I am allowed to speak for only 10 minutes—the limitation is understandable, but it tends to destroy debate—so I shall make only a few points.
No one could seriously claim that Parliament is not in need of some reform when we see acres of green leather around us. It is most unfortunate—to put it mildly—that more hon. Members, particularly Conservatives, are not present to debate this fascinating and important subject.
I intervened during the speech of the Leader of the Opposition to make the important point that all constitutional issues should be debated on the Floor of the House. I believe that any constitutional legislation introduced by any Government should be treated in that way. Although I shall do what I can to ensure that the right hon. Gentleman does not become Prime Minister, in that unhappy event, I hope that he would honour the pledge that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House forced him to make today—we all heard it—and ensure that any constitutional legislation was debated on the Floor of the House.
Several areas need reform. I have always advocated fixed-term Parliaments, and the frenetic events of recent days and weeks have confirmed my belief. Unless a Government are defeated on the Floor of the House in a vote of confidence, they should serve their time—whether it be four or five years. We should quickly incorporate that reform into our constitution.
1100 I am also a strong believer in electoral reform. I do not believe in proportional representation and I do not believe in the alternative vote. I believe strongly in the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituency. Every hon. Member should have 50 per cent. plus one of the vote.
Some 14 or 15 years ago, I introduced a private Member's Bill on the subject of the two-round election. If no candidate receives 50 per cent. plus one of the vote in an election, the electors should be allowed to consider in the intervening week who they want to represent them in Parliament. I think that that would give a new emphasis to the constituency and counter the presidential nature of our elections, which I deplore.
I also believe strongly that mistakes have been made in the past 18 years. I regret the fact that so much power has been taken away from local government. I am totally unrepentant about my consistent opposition to the abolition of the Greater London council. Although I held no brief for that institution—I thought that it was riddled with flaws—it was wrong to deprive this great city of a directly elected strategic authority. I believe that the matter should be put right at an early date.
The very structure of our kingdom lies at the heart of this debate. This is a unitary state. Although our constitution has evolved—I hope that I have said enough in the last two or three minutes to show that I readily accept that improvements can be made to it—to threaten the very fabric of our unitary state is an extremely serious matter. The ill-thought-out plans for devolution in Scotland and Wales would threaten the fabric of our unitary state.
It is no good the leader of the Liberal Democrats trying, as he did, to make false analogies with Spain and Germany, which have a totally different history from this country. They have not evolved in the same way. They do not have the long background of evolution towards a unitary state that we have. I would be very reluctant to tamper with that mechanism.
We have been a little remiss in not giving closer thought to devolution over the past 18 years. I fought very strongly—as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) knows, because we were honourable opponents at that time—against the devolution proposals of the former Labour Government. I believed that they were misconceived and wrong. Nevertheless, I would like to have seen something similar to the appointed but not elected representative assemblies in Scotland and Wales, as was advocated by the late Lord Home of The Hirsel, then Sir Alec Douglas-Home, in one of his papers.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
No, I do not have time. I am extremely sorry.
Had we gone down that road at that time, we probably would not be having this debate today.
I shall now deal with the bicameral nature of our legislature, because no one can seriously defend the automatic right to sit in Parliament conferred by birth. I have never sought to defend that, and never would. I believe that it would be possible to have House of Lords reform that preserved an hereditary element along the lines of the Acts of Union of 1707 and 1800, because the accumulated experience that certain families have, and the 1101 contribution of youth that the hereditary element brings, is not lightly to be cast aside. Many peers, including Labour peers—including Lord Strabolgi—have put forward a variety of alternative proposals that would preserve an element of that. Those proposals should be seriously addressed and properly considered. I hope that that will be done.
What alarms me most about the proposals for reform of the other place are those that would create an assembly of placemen; that would give more and more power to the party hierarchy; and that would lead to the appointment of apparatchiks, who would merely do the bidding of their political masters. I oppose such reforms for the same reason as I would oppose to the end of my days any list system for this House, because there are a number of hon. Members on these Benches who probably would never have got near the place on a list system.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
And over there, too. I quite agree. I do not want to see such an Assembly down the Corridor.
The quality of debate and the accumulation of wisdom and experience in the other place is second to none of any legislative chamber in the world, and we cast that away to the disadvantage of this country and its good governance. I do not believe that the other place should have the power of veto, and it does not have it, but I believe that the power of scrutiny, examination and delay is good. The one Bill in the past 18 years that the other place turned down was the War Crimes Act 1991, and that decision was one of the wisest ever taken in Parliament against one of the most foolish and inept measures proposed by any Government in recent years.
We have to think most carefully when we decide what reform should take place. Reform there should be, but we must not rush pell-mell into a whole range of reforms, we will turn this place into a legislative quagmire. Her Majesty's Government will not easily be carried on, in the spheres of health, housing, foreign affairs and so on, if we have before this place a whole range of constitutional measures. The biggest threat implicit in any Labour victory—I do not, of course, believe that there will be a Labour victory—is the threat to the constitutional structure and fabric of this nation. It is a threat that should be recognised, trumpeted abroad and resisted by any democratic politician.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) referred to the United Kingdom as a unitary state. It is up to a point; it is one kingdom, but it is not a uniform one. There are various differences within it, and we have seriously to address how best to reflect them. We will find the answer to some extent in the hon. Gentleman's comments about the need to look again at local government and to consider certain forms of devolution more seriously and more closely. The hon. Gentleman made a thoughtful speech as, indeed, did the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore).
I am sorry that I cannot quite praise the Prime Minister's speech and that of the Leader of the Opposition. I found the Leader of the Opposition's speech 1102 extremely disappointing. Despite the fact that, throughout the Prime Minister's speech, Opposition Back Benchers were making noises about Northern Ireland, the Leader of the Opposition found it impossible to find time even to consider the issue of Northern Ireland during his speech.
The Prime Minister found some time for Northern Ireland, but I found what he had to say extremely unsatisfactory and riddled with errors. He tried to justify his view on Northern Ireland, which he acknowledged was very different from his view on the rest of the United Kingdom, by referring to special circumstances in Northern Ireland. When he elaborated on those special circumstances, one seemed to be key. He said that there were no elected representatives from Northern Ireland from parties that could form a Government here. That was a very carefully crafted phrase to avoid having to acknowledge the fact that the Conservative party cannot get votes in Northern Ireland because its policies are seen by the people of Northern Ireland as hostile to their interests on fundamental matters.
There was another reason. Until 1974—when the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) withdraw the Whip from my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), and others—Northern Ireland returned at elections an overwhelming majority of members who were in a national party. There is simply no basis in fact for the distinction that the Prime Minister tried to draw. It is commonplace on these matters to say that Northern Ireland is different, but there are differences. There are special circumstances in Northern Ireland. There are cultural differences and national differences, but those can be replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom—in Wales and Scotland.
The only real point of difference in Northern Ireland is that we have a foreign Government with territorial ambitions—our own Government are at best neutral and at worst seek to undermine the Union—and we have terrorism. That is the difference. The fact that, because we have terrorism, the Government treat Northern Ireland differently is very dangerous, because it is a precedent that might be followed elsewhere. The Government must consider that very carefully.
The Prime Minister claimed that his policy is aimed at retaining Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. It is as well that he gabbled that sentence, because nobody in Northern Ireland believes him—and rightly so, because the proposals that the Government espouse on matters such as the framework document would very gravely damage the Union. Indeed, I suggest that they were intended to do so.
I regard the position on Northern Ireland—and the position on Europe—as the biggest constitutional issues that face the United Kingdom. The House will understand why I concentrate more on the former than the latter. Both must be treated seriously. We must deal with the fundamentals. The fundamental question for Northern Ireland is whether we have a Government who are prepared to sustain the Union and to regard themselves as having a responsibility to everyone in the Union. That is the key question.
The Government portray themselves as being in favour of the Union. They campaign here—that is what they were doing today—and in Scotland, but they do not realise that they will have no credibility in Scotland as a champion for the Union while they are working to undermine the 1103 Union in Northern Ireland and Scotland are: hon. Members based in the south of England sometimes do not realise that. The Secretary of State will know that people in Scotland notice the difference between the Government's policy on Scotland and their policy on Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) raised that point when he intervened in the Prime Minister's speech, but it was not answered.
We favour a form of devolution, and we can answer the West Lothian question with no problem. There are three different answers to it, one of which was touched on by the Liberal Democrats, who referred to the old Unionist policy of home rule all round. It was a Unionist policy before it was a Liberal Democrat policy. The problem with home rule all round is the size of England: the 80 per cent. in England would dominate. Despite attempts to revive that policy, it is not realistic.
Another answer to the West Lothian question was given by Simon Jenkins in The Times last week, who wrote in praise of Belfast—quite rightly, too. However, I prefer the answer that is based on the simple proposition that the important aspect of devolution or the establishment of separate parliaments is not the legislative powers, but the fiscal arrangements and whether the fiscal unity of the kingdom is being maintained. Key decisions on tax raising and expenditure involve, by extension, all key policy decisions, because most key policy decisions involve expenditure. If we have, as I believe we should, fiscal powers and powers to decide expenditure and main areas of policy here, clearly there must be full representation here. The danger with Labour's proposals for Scotland is that they would disrupt the fiscal unity of the kingdom.
The Jenkins defence in The Times last week interestingly referred to local taxation in terms of rates. The danger is that Labour is dealing not with local, but with national, taxation. While income tax is decided here, all the people are entitled to equal representation here. It is the old business of no taxation without representation. It is not a new point.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley supplied me earlier with the first report of the Cabinet Committee on the Irish question, dated 4 November 1919, which contains the proposals that emerged later as the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It says:In regard to representation in the Imperial Parliament the Committee are clear that so long as the Imperial Parliament exercises taxing powers in Ireland, Ireland must have the right to representation in the Imperial Parliament on the basis of population.Interestingly, the Government failed to provide for that, because they cut Northern Ireland's representation: it no longer operated on a population basis. Its representation was about half what it was entitled to based on its population.
We can take away the West Lothian question. When we do that as I have suggested, we end up with a local administration which, in some respects, is more akin to local government than to the fully blown parliament some other people refer. This is where we match up with the points made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire. Regional assemblies, albeit with some legislative powers, as in the proposals of the Ulster Unionist party, do not raise the same fundamental questions as parliaments.
Interestingly, the Conservative Government have prepared the way for action in Wales and Scotland by changing local government into a single tier. It will not 1104 look that strange if Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which also has a single tier of local government, have as the upper tier a regional assembly with powers perhaps greater than those of English county councils. That would reflect the regional characteristics of the United Kingdom. England's size is significant, and that dominance causes problems for the regions. The regional dimension of the United Kingdom must be addressed.
§ 7.4 pm
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
The debate has been extremely interesting. Hon. Members should reflect on the fact that we are in the House of Commons on a Thursday evening, on a one-line Whip, with no decision, and no vote to take at the end of the evening, yet there is quite heavy attendance. That is because the House has always taken the constitution and constitutional reform very seriously. Reforms must be practical and workable, and should be introduced for a purpose.
Given the attendance tonight, and the fact that hon. Members have put their cases in a non-partisan way, we must ensure that specific proposals for reforming our constitution are considered by all hon. Members. The most significant point that has been made during the debate was made, strangely enough, by the Leader of the Opposition. He refused point blank to confirm the age-old custom that, when constitutional legislation is introduced, the Committee stage is taken on the Floor of the House. He confined himself to saying that we cannot bind our successor Parliament, and that the Labour party will make up its own mind. Constitutionally that is correct, but his admission was extremely significant.
§ Mr. Arnold
What would be the programme for the next Parliament of a theoretical Labour Government? They would have to deal with the legislation arising from Maastricht 2, and with legislation on a European single currency, on Scottish and Welsh devolution, on reform of the House of Lords and on reform of the electoral system. Every one of those items is constitutional.
What would happen? On practical grounds, the legislation would be stuffed into Committee, and the Committees would be packed. Let us be under no illusion: a Labour Chief Whip would not put on the Committee dealing with legislation on the governance of Scotland the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), the originator of the West Lothian question. The membership of the Committee would also exclude Labour Unionist Members, who are a little more timid than the hon. Member for Linlithgow and are not putting their heads above the parapet.
Given the electoral squeeze and the small number of Liberal Democrat Members that there will be in the next Parliament, I wonder whether they have realised that they may not even be represented on the Standing Committees that deal with such legislation. Bearing in mind the enthusiasm of the small nationalist parties and the Liberal Democrat party, and the fact that only one or two members of such Committees are from small parties, the way in which these matters would be handled in a House of Commons with a Labour majority gives us food for thought.
1105 This afternoon, we have seen the Labour party blundering into a morass. It is incredible that, after 18 years in opposition, it has no clear idea and no detail of the reforms that it wants to introduce. The Leader of the Opposition was prepared only to dedicate himself to jeering at the House of Lords, because that is a nice easy sell to the left wingers on his Back Benches. It shows that the Labour leopard has not changed its spots. [Interruption.] It is clear from the reaction of Labour Members that they have not looked at their history books.
When did the House last try to reform the House of Lords, and what happened? There was a stitch-up between the two Front Benches, and the Back Benches chucked out the proposals under the most extraordinary alliance of Enoch Powell and Michael Foot. Plans to reform the other place need to be laid down extremely carefully. We should ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve.
For a start, we should ask what was the origin of the House of Lords. Indeed, what was the origin of our House of Commons? It is the House of the communities—the communities that send us here to represent our counties and boroughs—but what was the purpose of the other House? It was to represent the great vested interests in the land, and to bring them into the process of government. What were those great interests? They were the landowners and the Church. Obviously, landowning was an hereditary matter, and that interest is still in our legislature—as is the established Church of England.
Our constitution has evolved. To realise that, we need only run through the details of the admission of representative peers from Scotland and Ireland, the inclusion of the Law Lords, and the massive increase in the number of life peerages. They have existed only since 1958. Female life peers were admitted in that year, and hereditary women peers were admitted in 1963. Reform has taken place over the years, but, in reforming the other House, we must be very clear about what we are doing.
If we chuck out the hereditary peers—which strikes me as an interesting idea—what will we be left with? We will be left with a rump. We will be left mostly with peers who will be in the other place merely because of the patronage of the establishment of this House. In that event, there would be pressure in favour of bringing about membership of the other House by different means.
One possibility is indeed an elected House. If Members of that House were elected in the same way as we are, the paramountcy of our House would immediately be challenged. If those Members were elected through the same system as us, and agreed with us, what would be the point of it? If they disagreed with us, something would be wrong. If they were elected through a different system, and disagreed with us, there would be wrangling about which House was more representative of the British people—and it could well be argued that our House was not the more representative. Any form of election to the other House will mean a challenge to the paramountcy of this House, but there is no way in which that House down the Corridor can claim that it has greater authority than our House, because we—uniquely—are elected by the British people.
So what do we do? Do we revert to the original idea of nominations by the vested interests? Who are the vested interests of today? Eighteen years ago, the vested interests 1106 were clearly the trade unions, and nominations by them would have meant Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Arthur Scargill sitting in the other place. I do not think that many people today even know who the trade union leaders are.
Who, then, are the great vested interests? Are they in the press, or in television? Should those people be down the Corridor? How do we bring about the representation of those vested interests? How do we work out who should represent large business, small business, the professions and other Churches and faiths? As has been said, it is a complete morass. The fact is that, when we have constitutional change, we must make practical decisions here in the House of Commons.
We do not know what dirty deals have been done, and what secret treaties have been agreed, with the Liberal Democrats, who are enthusiastic about proportional representation. I fear that, in the successor Parliament, we shall see yet another push towards PR. Let me repeat the question that I asked earlier. What is the purpose of this House of the communities? It is to represent the boroughs and counties of the kingdom. Any attempt to introduce PR will break the sacred link that all of us have with our constituencies. [Interruption] Members of the Scottish National party may well jeer, but I value that link immensely. I value my responsibility to speak and vote in the House on behalf of my constituents. Any form of PR would break the link with our constituencies, and would end our sole responsibility.
There are seven constituencies in west Kent, all of which, very wisely, have returned Conservative Members. Under PR, those seven Conservative constituencies might return four Conservative Members, two Labour Members and one Liberal Member. What would that do? A constituent comes to me with a problem, and I say, "If you vote Labour, go and see a Labour Member." A constituent wants to talk to me about housing or social security, but that may not be my issue; I tell him to go to one of the other Tory Members, if he is a Tory voter. PR would provide an opportunity to pass the buck. We must retain our electoral system.
§ Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
I shall confine my remarks to Scottish issues. Hon. Members will understand why. I believe that the Welsh should do what the Welsh people want, that the English should do what the English people want and that the Scots have won the right to decide among themselves how they will be governed.
The Scots are a difficult nation. Almost all our history has been scarred by deep and continuing divisions among ourselves about how we should be governed. That has been so since the brawling barons of Wallace's day. Today, I stood on the steps where Sir William Wallace was accused of treason, tried, quartered and dispatched around the country. His head was stuck on a pole. That was because of what he felt about how Scotland should be governed. At least we have come far since that day, and the same thing is unlikely to happen to those of us who feel that there ought to be a parliament in Scotland, but do not necessarily want to renegotiate the treaty of Union at this point.
1107 The days of William Wallace were followed by the struggles of Jacobite times, and our repeated failure in this century to unite behind the cause of home rule. National division, and even civil war, have been more common in the Scottish experience than national wars of independence ever were. It is often forgotten, for instance, that there were as many Scots in arms against Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden as there were fighting for him.
Scotland therefore faces an historic choice as we head towards the new millennium. We can continue to divide under our different party political banners, or we can unite behind a cross-party and popular consensus that can and will deliver a workable parliament for Scotland. The Scottish convention provided an opportunity for that to happen. Unfortunately, although some 80 per cent. of the factions in Scotland were represented at various times during the discussions that took place, the Conservatives chose not to be a part of them, because—as has been proved in the speeches that we have heard today—most of them are opposed to any form of change. I do not blame them for that; I am not being moralistic. I understand their opposition.
We keep arguing about the difficulties and differences involved in the West Lothian question, but, irrespective of what happens in Scotland and whatever the political hue of our voting, given the way in which the Parliament of the Union has been set up, we as parliamentarians have a right to be here arguing our case on questions of macro-economics and defence.
I do not want to come down from Scotland, after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, to argue about English education, but we must understand something else. We as Scots regret very much the attempt to anglicise our education system. Since the days of John Knox, we have been proud of our history in that regard. Education was to be provided free and at the time of need: that was, perhaps, a forerunner of the theory of the national health service.
In modern times, Scots have been irritated by the fact that, irrespective of how we have voted in Scotland—especially since 1955—the Conservatives have never had a majority of the vote. When they came here, to this Parliament of the Union—[Interruption.] I am not arguing the case for Labour. The vote for the Opposition parties combined has been greater than the Conservative vote—in recent years, much greater. The Tories have been left with a rump of Members who are content to come down here, to the Parliament of the treaty of Union, and to pursue aims that the Scots are most unwilling to accept.
The classic example of that was the poll tax. It was never proved to be illegal, although it was certainly immoral, and it was inflicted upon Scotland. We abhorred that tax, hated it, but we had to suffer for a year before the Government attempted to introduce it in England and Wales.
The poll tax was imposed on Scotland because Scottish Conservative Members were prepared to go along with the majority of Conservative Members here in an experiment on the Scots to see whether the tax would work. In part, the decision to impose it was malevolent because the Scots had voted Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat. As a form of punishment, if nothing else, we were to be guinea pigs to test the success or otherwise of that obnoxious, iniquitous and unfair tax.
1108 Once the tax was imposed on England and Wales, English Conservative Members began to feel pressure from their constituents against the tax when they realised that it was not as even-handed or as fair as they had first imagined. [Interruption.] There are always masochists, but, irrespective of the views of some groups, Parliament decided the issue, and it was English Members of Parliament who imposed the tax on the Scots. Even those hon. Members who did not wish to support that decision trooped through the Lobby to a man to impose the tax on the Scots. Is it any wonder that, in recent years, Scots have felt irritated at being partly anglicised by the set-up?
I have consistently argued for a Parliament in Scotland, and I do not see any difficulty with the West Lothian question. For heaven's sake, 72 Scots Members will come back here and there will be 17 from Northern Ireland and 40 from Wales. If the Celts can combine their forces, get their act together, we shall have 129 votes in this Parliament in which there will be 524 English Members. It will take some rebellion by the non-Celts to overturn any decision by the House. We have said vociferously for years that we in Scotland have a right to determine at least our domestic affairs. What could be fairer?
§ Mr. McKelvey
I have two minutes to change the constitution.
As a former negotiator, I am not prepared to agree that there should be any reduction in the number of Members in the new Parliament which, obviously, will have a Labour Government. However, if this august body says, as is its right, that we should renegotiate the treaty of Union, let us sit down and do that. As far as we are concerned, nothing changes with a Scottish Parliament if that is what the people of Scotland desire.
The Welsh have every right to determine their own affairs. If they want an assembly or a parliament, I will fight to the last to ensure that they have the right to decide. If the English are so concerned about the Scots, the Welsh and the fish voting on their education issues, they can opt for an English Parliament. If the people of England want an English Parliament to consider their domestic issues, they will have one, irrespective of what hon. Members think. The Scots deserve a parliament, and they will have one, because a Labour Government will be returned and will see to it.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I hope that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) will forgive me if I do not follow his logic and his argument, although I have close Scottish relations and my wife, who is also a Member of this place, is half Scots and her mother's family came from Maryhill in Glasgow some years ago.
The blight on our constitution is career politicians. Increasingly, over the years that I have been here, there have been intakes of people who perhaps lack principle. They do not necessarily lack experience, but because they are determined to get to the top, they are inclined to change their views almost as frequently as the weather changes, and they do so to appeal to the leadership of their party and the establishment. That relates to all political parties and not just the governing one.
1109 I regret that fact, because, if there were more principled people on both sides of the House, we would have better legislation. Such people would be prepared to carry their knowledge, commitment and principle through the Lobby at the end of debates. In such circumstances, many of the problems that we are considering in this debate about our United Kingdom constitution and devolution would never have arisen.
I should like to refer in particular to Northern Ireland. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, is not in his place, because I agreed with virtually every word of his speech. I fell out with my establishment in this place within a matter of weeks of coming to it nearly 26 years ago. I voted against the prorogation and abolition of Stormont, and then against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, because I believed that it was unacceptable interference in a successful constitution.
We set up a system, particularly when we introduced the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to involve a foreign country in the government of part of our country—that is to say, Ulster, the Six Counties. That was done without discussions with the duly elected Members of Parliament for that part of the United Kingdom. It was an abortion, and it has contributed to many of the continuing problems in this country, by which I mean England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
If, in recent years, the Government had not sought to remove a great deal of responsibility, authority and influence from local government—a misguided and wrong policy—the demand for devolution, particularly by the Opposition, would be nowhere near as strong as it is. We have contributed in part to the problems that we face. I say to those who seek devolution, some form of assembly or parliament in Scotland and Wales, that such a system will inevitably create tremendous conflict in the United Kingdom. Irrespective of whether the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun accepts it, the Liberal Democrats certainly accept that, under any form of devolved powers to Scotland and Wales, there will be a reduction in Scots and Welsh representation at Westminster.
Hon. Members cannot ignore the fact that the current per capita public expenditure offered to Scotland and Wales is likely to be reduced. If Scotland has a Parliament with the ability to raise what is called a tartan tax—I do not call it that—then the amount of money that the United Kingdom taxpayer generally and the English taxpayer in particular will be prepared to pay to Scotland will be greatly reduced.
I am also sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) is not here. He made a constructive and measured speech. I believe that it will turn out to be one of the best speeches in this important debate. Again, I found myself in considerable agreement with much of what he said.
I am one of those who believe that, unless something is wrong, we should not try to fix it; if it works, do not try to fix it. Overwhelmingly, our constitution is right for this country and the various parts of this country that comprise the United Kingdom. The UK's success internationally has come about not just because of the majority English—far from it—but because of the huge 1110 contribution and the international nature of the Scots and the Welsh. They contributed in those great battles that we fought abroad—I think particularly of the success at Rorke's drift in south Africa, which was the result of the tremendous achievements of a Welsh regiment. The Scots control economic activity throughout the world, so to set themselves up as small, independent entities in their own right does not take into account the contribution that they have made to the UK and to international affairs as a whole.
Some have talked about the need to alter our voting system, whether through the list system or the alternative vote. The list system certainly would put additional power in the hands of political parties and the establishment of those political parties. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, under a list system, I would never have been elected to this place because, rightly or wrongly, I have a mouth that God gave me and I have used it, and I will continue to use it as long as the people of Macclesfield elect me to the House. I do not always follow the advice, the hectoring and the harassment that I get from my party leadership, because I believe that I have been sent to this place not just by the Conservatives, but by the people of Macclesfield as a whole, and I greatly honour the institution of Parliament.
I look for better Government, not for more Government, costing more money. Sadly, many of the proposals that we have heard from the Opposition, particularly Her Majesty's Opposition and minority parties, involves not less or better government, but merely more government and often an additional tier of government.
I share entirely the views that have been expressed on a number of occasions in the debate about constitutional legislation. I hope that, if the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and his party achieve office at the general election, they will make a commitment that the Committee stage of any constitutional legislation will, as it has been by precedent over the years, be taken on the Floor of the House. I have been here nearly 26 years. I remember the devolution Bills on Scotland and Wales. The Committee stages were taken on the Floor of the House and many Labour Members believed fervently that that was correct. Therefore, I hope that we shall have an assurance from Her Majesty's Opposition that constitutional Committee stages will be taken on the Floor of the House.
I shall end with the subject of Europe. The House is sovereign and must remain sovereign. I share the views of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore). We must take back from Europe many of those duties and responsibilities that, inadvertently and without the sanction, or the knowing sanction, of the House, we have transferred to the European Commission. We have a great role to play not just in Europe, but in the world and we can do that only if we are in control of our destiny. Let us be proud of what we have and the history that we have achieved, and we can continue to be successful.
§ Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)
There is one thing with which I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton): we should never give party leaders the power to draw up lists for Members of 1111 Parliament. I remember it happening when I was a Member of the European Parliament. Suddenly, half the members of the Portuguese delegation disappeared because the then party leader had had a dispute with them and then removed them from the party list, so party leaders must never be given that power. However, I agree with proportional representation and I want it to be used as the system of election to both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.
I say, Welsh Assembly. I think that it is no secret to those people who know where I stand on this that I would prefer a Welsh Parliament with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. We in Wales have long argued for that. At the end of the 1970s—I know this because I was sitting in the Press Gallery at the time—the Scottish Labour party was not as enthusiastic about devolution as the Welsh Labour party, and now it seems ironic that a Welsh Parliament should have limited powers compared with the Scottish Parliament.
However, I am prepared to compromise, because, unfortunately, public opinion in Wales is not yet strongly behind a Welsh Parliament. It is, however, strongly behind Welsh devolution. The latest opinion poll has shown clearly that more than 55 per cent. of the Welsh people are now in favour of devolution. As the argument goes on and we have a full debate on the issue, I am certain that that percentage will increase rapidly.
The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who is no longer here, lectured us on our history and suggested that perhaps some of us do not know our history, but I know that, in 1901, my illustrious predecessor in the Cynon Valley was Keir Hardie, and he argued then for Welsh home rule. There have been variations on that theme throughout the century, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) said, he has waited 20 years. In fact, we have all waited years, because I was also active in that devolution attempt 20 years ago. I know how hard he struggled, and it was against the odds, because some powerful voices in Wales were arguing against devolution. At that time, the people of Wales were misled. They will no longer be misled by the present party leaders, because they are clear in their view that there has to be devolution for Wales.
Much has changed since the time of Keir Hardie. Wales's traditional heavy industries of coal and steel have collapsed. There have been 18 years of Conservative rule. The valleys area, which I represent, is considered by many independent commentators to be an economic failure on an epic scale. Many men of working age are not working. Deprivation is high. The region has some of the lowest incomes in the whole of Great Britain. People in Wales are fed up with that. They have constantly voted for Labour Governments. That is the irony for the people of Wales and Scotland, who have also constantly shown their support for the Labour party.
The Welsh Office was set up as a separate Government Department in 1964. According to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), it was almost strangled at birth by what he described asthe jealous guardianship exercised by Whitehall departments over the principle of centralised administration".Much criticism has focused on the democratic deficit in Welsh politics, which is highlighted by the many quangos in Wales. Their numbers have increased 1112 enormously since the Government came into office. A recent report on quangos by the Council of Welsh Districts estimated that there are about 350 quangos of various descriptions operating in Wales. Obviously, there is great concern about the accountability of those quangos, the massive powers of patronage held by the Secretary of State for Wales, who is responsible for about 1,400 appointments, and, of course, the disproportionate representation on those quangos of Conservative supporters.
A study conducted by my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) found that Conservative party members were over-represented by 40 per cent. on such quangos. Conservatives outnumber Labour members by four to one on health service trust boards in Wales. That is hardly representative of the Welsh electorate.
The 10 largest quangos in Wales spend £52 million a year on administrative costs, nearly double the amount spent three years ago. A Welsh Assembly, which had responsibility for those quangos, would devolve many of their powers to local authorities. That would improve the quality of their administration and the representation on them. That would certainly save taxpayers' money.6 Let me give some examples of the democratic deficit in this place. Standing Order No. 86, which dates back to 1907, requires that all Welsh Members of Parliament should be entitled to sit on the Committees set up to scrutinise specifically Welsh legislation. During the passage of the Welsh Language Bill and the Local Government (Wales) Bill the Government suspended Standing Order No. 86. They did so despite the fact that the issues in question touched every part of Wales and involved all Welsh Members, who rightly argued that they should be able to sit on such Committees.
Interestingly enough, the Government argued that Parliament was that of the United Kingdom as a whole, and that, because Welsh Members are entitled to attend debates and vote on issues affecting England, English Members should be entitled to do the same with regard to Wales. Of course the two situations are not parallel, because Welsh Members will always be a minority in Parliament. It is the function of procedures such as those set down in Standing Order No. 86 to protect minority territorial interests in Parliament.
Then, of course, we have the Welsh Grand Committee. If ever there was a useless talking shop, that is it. Despite the fact that Welsh Members have argued against many of the Government's policies of the past 18 years and the Government are always defeated in the Welsh Grand Committee when those policies are put to the vote, they still go on to drive their policies through in the face of the majority opinion of Welsh Members.
The Government have refused to give that Committee powers to take the Committee stage of Bills relating exclusively to Wales. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee, which was set up to monitor the Welsh Office, is so stuffed with English Members that, again, the Government always have a majority on it.
Members representing Welsh constituencies are increasingly unable to hold Ministers to account at Welsh Question Time because of a concerted effort, which has become more apparent in the past year, by English Conservative Members to table questions for answer during that session. That has meant that many Welsh Members are prevented from scrutinising the actions of Welsh Office Ministers.
1113 I have attempted to raise a question of great importance to my constituents during the past three occasions when we have had Welsh questions, but I have failed to do so because we have run out of time. Recently, six of the 11 questions put to the Secretary of State for Wales during that Question Time were from English Conservatives. On another two occasions, eight out of the 15 oral questions came from English Conservative Members. We have calculated that each Opposition Member only gets two opportunities a year to question Welsh Office Ministers. Parliamentary scrutiny is clearly a myth, because the majority of Welsh Members are virtually powerless to influence the decisions affecting Wales.
If it is not working, fix it. The existing arrangement is clearly not working and we must fix it.
§ Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West)
The Opposition's devolution proposals for Wales are regarded by the nationalists as inadequate because they do not go far enough towards Plaid Cymru's goal of independence—or, I should say, what Plaid Cymru misleadingly calls independence—for Wales. In reality, the Opposition's proposals and what Plaid Cymru calls independence are not very different. Both policies would lead to Wales becoming an insignificant and indistinguishable region of a united Europe—a spectre to which my colleagues and I on the Conservative Benches are totally opposed.
Plaid Cymru says that it wants a Welsh Parliament with full legislative and tax-raising powers. It wants a republic represented in its own right in the European Union. That is not independence. To be a truly independent state, Wales would need to have its own currency, its own central bank and a Government free to determine their own interest rates, borrowing requirement, taxation, expenditure and so on. Plaid Cymru's model denies Wales those essential freedoms.
The nationalists would have Wales join a federal Europe with its single currency and centrally determined interest rates. The convergence criteria necessary for Wales to participate would limit its powers to determine taxation and expenditure. I shall demonstrate later how, in any event, Wales would never be able to meet those convergence criteria.
Plaid Cymru's model is nothing more than one in which Wales's prominent role in the United Kingdom would be exchanged for a bit part in a united Europe. The nationalists are so obsessively anti-British in their outlook that they fail to understand that the outcome they so desire would devastate the Welsh people's standard of living, Wales's identity and its current freedom to be a proud nation within the United Kingdom.
The nationalists dwell in a dream world where their version of independence would transform Wales into a land of milk and honey. They believe that it would be subsidised by the European Union to such an extent that the problems of the real world would disappear and we would live happily ever after. It is time that they woke up.
Let us examine briefly the financial position of Wales and impose upon it some of Plaid Cymru's policies. It is, however, always difficult to assess accurately the nationalist policies as they are invariable vague and never, ever costed.
1114 One of the myths that the nationalists are currently peddling is that an independent Wales could be subsidised from Europe in much the same way as the Republic of Ireland. That does not stand up to the barest scrutiny. First, the Irish Republic has objective 1 status—Wales does not, and would not even if it were independent. Quite simply, it does not satisfy the relevant criteria needed to achieve that status. Indeed, that status reflects a level of economic deprivation that I would not like to see inflicted on any part of Wales. Plaid Cymru's policies would, however, certainly go a long way towards causing such deprivation.
Secondly, the nationalists could not expect to separate Wales from the United Kingdom and continue to receive subventions from the United Kingdom Government. At present the nationalists do some pretty shifty double counting that gives the impression that any new European funding would be in addition to the level of expenditure by the United Kingdom Government in Wales. That is the central point which destroys their case. I shall exemplify that by referring to data contained in "Government Expenditure and Revenue" for 1994–95, which was published by the Welsh Office.
Total Government expenditure in Wales in 1994–95 was £15.6 billion. That consisted of identifiable expenditure of about £12.3 billion and non-identifiable expenditure and other expenditure, which is calculated according to Wales's share of the United Kingdom's gross domestic product. If one uses population data for that calculation, the result is an even higher figure. But the total tax raised in Wales was £9.9 billion, leaving a fiscal deficit of £5.7 billion. In order to maintain public services at existing levels, an independent Wales would need to raise £5.7 billion from its own resources every year.
In Wales, an increase of 1p on the basic rate of income tax raises £60 million. If the basic rate were raised to 100 per cent.—if every single penny earned were taken in tax—it would not clear the deficit. Every year, there would still be £1 billion of debt. Even if Welsh men and women worked for nothing, public services as we know them could not be sustained.
The yield from a 1p rise in corporation tax is £30 million, which is half the yield of a 1p rise in income tax. Corporation tax would have to be doubled to raise the additional £1 billion. Even borrowing at UK levels is not an option, as such borrowing would have to occur every year.
§ Mr. Richards
That would cause a cumulative structural deficit that could not be serviced or sustained.
In 1994–95, value added tax receipts in Wales were £1.7 billion. The VAT rate would have to be doubled to reduce the basic rate of direct taxation to 72p in the pound. In short, it could not be done.
Public services in Wales could not realistically be financed from Welsh resources. To do so would mean that dozens of hospitals would have to close, hundreds of schools would have to be shut, benefits would have to be slashed and roads would not be maintained. Unemployment would get out of control, which would have serious consequences in social unrest and public disorder. The economic devastation would be unprecedented.
1115 Plaid Cymru has daily promised huge improvements, costing additional billions of pounds, to the people of Wales. Its so-called "health white paper", published two years ago, would add hundreds of millions of pounds to the bill. To meet its promises, more millions would be required for community care, and even more would be required for education. More again would be required for promoting the Welsh language, public transport, agriculture and roads. What about Plaid Cymru's promise on the linkage of state pensions to average earnings, or its promises of free television licences and increased housing, disability and unemployment benefits? Name any programme, and it has promised more money for it—by lying that a Welsh Parliament would deliver all.
It is not a matter of asking from where the money would come, but of asking who Plaid Cymru thinks it is kidding. The truth is that its objective of an independent Wales in the European Union is a non-starter—unless it is to destroy public services, such as health and education, and impose draconian taxes on workers and businesses, which would cause mass migrations and wholesale business closures.
Plaid Cymru weaves a romantic image of an independent Wales as a land of milk and honey. That image is completely false. Wales would not be an independent country but a small cog in a European wheel. It would be not a land of milk and honey but a land of bread and water. It would not be a garden of Eden, it would be the garden of Gethsemane, in which the Welsh people would be betrayed. It is not a vision for the third millennium but a reversion to the first.
Any serious observer of the House would have been dismayed by the woefully inadequate way in which the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) prepared for this most serious debate. His remarks were trivial, and he made jokes about hon. Members' comments 20 years ago. He totally failed to answer any of the fundamentally serious questions on the devolution issue. He avoided the West Lothian question, and he avoided other questions asked by my right hon. Friends on the relationship between the Executive at Westminster and an assembly in Cardiff or a parliament in Scotland.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield totally failed to say that a Secretary of State for Wales and a Cardiff Assembly would both have Executive powers in health, for example, but that a Secretary of State for Wales would not have a vote or the right to take part in a debate in a Cardiff Assembly. Which would be supreme? That is the question that he failed to answer.
§ Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
We have heard much in this debate about Scotland and Wales, and something about Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) even suggested that we might have a Parliament of England.
§ Mr. Clelland
I do not say, "Hear, Hear," to that, as I should like to speak about the English regions. Those of us who live in the northern regions believe that English regional devolution is an essential part of any debate on constitutional reform. English regional government provides part of the answer to the West Lothian question.
1116 Over many years, we have developed a regional identity in the northern region, in co-operation with other interested parties. We live in the northernmost English region, and we know well the effects of a centralised Government based in the southernmost region. We have therefore had to take what action we can to help ourselves. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, in a very interesting and helpful speech, there are cultural differences in all parts of the United Kingdom, and they should be reflected in our constitution and system of government.
In the north, we created the North of England Assembly of Local Authorities, which was the first regional representative organisation, and we created our own regional development organization—the Northern Development Company. We do not want independence or separation. We are an English region, and we will remain so. However, we think that the Government of the United Kingdom can be more flexible and less dogmatic than they have become over the past 18 years.
The Labour party's proposals are not a threat to the Union, but an enhancement of the way in which we run our country. The Prime Minister said that we threaten a thousand years of British history. I should remind him that, 1,000 years ago, we were not the United Kingdom, let alone a democracy. We are a relatively young democracy. The full adult franchise was achieved only after a long struggle, less than 70 years ago. To pretend that we cannot improve our democracy is nonsense. Far from improving it, however, we have seen a marked deterioration in it under Tory Governments. That is what we want to change.
Before the Tory Local Government Act 1972, there were about 50,000 elected representatives in this country. Today, there are fewer than 25,000. Regional government would redress that balance, by requiring 1,000 more representatives, although the number would still be far fewer than that in 1972.
In the same period, since 1972, the number of representatives appointed by central Government to Government-controlled quangos has risen to 60,000. Those unelected bodies have taken from local government many of their powers in further education, health, urban regeneration, training and some aspects of housing. The list goes on. They now annually spend more than £50 billion of public money and run many of our public services. The total net annual transfer of public spending from elected councils to quangos is £31 billion.
It is sad that the Tory party has set itself so firmly against regional government. We know that some Conservative Members support the concept, and some of them—although they have left the Chamber—nodded in assent when it was mentioned in this debate. In the past, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Hailsham have all expressed their support for the idea of regional government. However, I suppose that we should not be too surprised that the Conservative party should revert to its traditional values and attempt to conserve power in the hands of the few.
The truth is that we have an over-centralised system of government, accompanied by an over-centralised economy. Political power is centred on Westminster, and economic power on the City of London. It is a system which has not well served the regions and nations of Britain. As the Prime Minister reminded us, our system is a product of ancient history; reform is long overdue.
1117 The Prime Minister may well be happy to wallow in a thousand years of history, but the people of this country prefer to look to the future. That is why the Labour party is determined to modernise our constitution, to decentralise political and economic power, to extend the franchise and to bring power closer to the people. Far from creating another tier of bureaucracy, Labour wants to extend the breadth and quality of our democracy. That is what our decentralisation policies are all about.
We have heard nothing from the Conservative party but distortions and exaggerations of our party's policy in the past few weeks and months. The latest distortion of the truth, repeated last weekend in Sedgefield by the Secretary of State for Wales, is that regional government will be costly for the taxpayer, and that advertising the post of chief executive for the north of England assembly is a demonstration of that truth. As he well knows, the assembly is simply filling a vacancy in a long-standing post. We should be grateful to the Secretary of State for Wales, however, for raising the issue of costs of administration. It is important, and should be taken into account when considering regional structures.
Despite its opposition to extending democracy to the regions, the Tory party has had no reservations about extending bureaucracy. Government offices have been set up in all the English regions, with running costs of more than £90 million a year. The cost of running the Government office of the north-east, which has a budget greater than that of any local authority in the region, exceeds £6 million a year, and the total running cost of the Government departments in the north-east alone is more than £10 million a year.
If one adds to that the thousands of appointees serving on quangos in the region—often paid thousands of pounds a year for working one or two days a week at most—and the cost of the bureaucracies that serve them, it is not difficult to see where massive savings could be made to finance any regional assembly without any need for additional taxation, while at the same time making public money and regional and local services accountable to the people they serve.
What about the politics of the matter? A classic example of how the centralised system of government works against the interests of our region was the enforced privatisation of the Port of Tyne authority, which the House agreed a few months ago. The proposals to privatise the port were opposed almost unanimously in the northern region. The Government's own consultation process attracted more than 465 responses, only four of which supported the Government's case. Bitter opposition came from business, trade unions, local government, local institutions, 83 per cent. of the region's Members of Parliament and the trust board itself.
The consultation process proved a complete waste of time. The huge weight of opinion was ignored, and the Government pressed on, but two issues relevant to today's debate emerged. First, my hon. Friends the Members for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) and for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and I. having been refused an audience with the Secretary of State for Transport, were invited into the presence of Lord Goschen, an unelected peer. The people of this country may be surprised to learn that three Members of Parliament, representing the area involved 1118 and elected by the people of the area to speak on issues affecting their lives, were told by someone who holds his position only because of some unknown activity of his forefathers and who, to our knowledge, had not even visited Tyneside, that he knew better than we did—and, what is more, better than all the local representations to the contrary—what was good for the people and businesses in our region.
The second was the sight of scores of Tory Members of Parliament, mostly from the south of England, pouring through the Lobby to carry the Government's dogma into legislation, in the face of massive opposition from the people of the area. There is no relevance to the national interest in central Government forcing such policies on local communities, for no other reason than to satisfy central dogma.
The Prime Minister has argued that our proposals imperil the Union. If, because of some disastrous turn of events, the Conservatives were to be re-elected for yet another term, it has been suggested that the democratic deficit in our nation will cause deep dismay and further resentment, leading to dangerous and turbulent unrest in parts of our society, which will itself endanger the Union. If that is true, then our proposals, far from endangering the Union, will preserve it.
Giving proper expression to our varied communities and enabling them to pursue their own priorities for their own local services; devolving the power to democratic and accountable assemblies, in regions that are large enough to have some political and economic clout and which can demonstrate a measure of social and economic cohesion—this is how we will provide a system of government that will allow for innovation and diversity, which can only be healthy, socially and economically.
We in the north look forward to the opportunity to restore trust and confidence in our democracy and to take our region into the 21st century, optimistic that life will get a whole lot better. Listening to the debate today, it is clearer than ever that we need a Labour Government to achieve that.
§ 8.3 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I suggest that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) looks up Viscount Goschen's noble antecedent, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chancellor. He had an interesting political career, sitting on the Liberal as well as the Tory Benches; he was quite a statesman in his day.
In a debate on devolution, there are certain inescapable consequences of politicians stirring up issues that might not necessarily be to the ultimate advantage of the people they represent. This could be such a debate. I believe that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish people working together make a very good team. I hope that nothing we do in the House will affect that. In every company, north or south of the border into Scotland or Wales or in Northern Ireland, one finds people of all the nationalities that make up the United Kingdom working happily and harmoniously together.
1119 I spent the best and probably the happiest part of my childhood in the most northern part of Scotland, in Caithness in the constituency of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the one-time leader of the Social Democratic party.
§ Mr. Hargreaves
Very close to Dounreay.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will excuse me for saying that I believe that, viewed from Caithness, Westminster is a long way away. Anyone watching television and seeing things happening at Westminster rather than in Edinburgh or elsewhere in Scotland will find it difficult not to get the idea that government is becoming remote from the people of Scotland.
I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and his predecessors on their efforts to ensure that the Scottish Office has been devolved to Scotland, and that there is greater accountability to the Scottish people through the Scottish Grand Committee and examination of what the Government and the Scottish Office do. I want that process to continue, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will in due course be developing plans to make sure that it does.
If we believe strongly in the Union—as I said, I have seen it from the northernmost part—we must not regard the House as mere bricks and mortar. If we want people in Dunnet Head in Caithness, in Wales, or in Ulster to feel part of the Union, we should not hesitate to move various aspects of these bricks and mortar to make the Union come alive. I should like to see Parliament being opened up in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the years ahead. I see no practical obstacle to that. I think it is a policy that this party could happily adopt in due course.
If we want the Union to work, we must make it work. We must make everyone feel part of it. I feel strongly that the formal Scottish Parliament advocated by the Labour party will lead to separatism, bitterness and reprisals. Labour's proposals are ill thought out and wrong.
Worse than that, in a Europe of regions, Scotland would become just another region, not a nation within a Union which has clout because it contributes to the European Union budget. It would be caught on the hook of handout grants, on which it would depend. It would give Brussels the opportunity to bypass the UK Parliament, just at a time when Scotland should be using UK weight and influence to take a lead in reforming or abolishing the common fisheries policy, in defending and promoting its heritage in, for example, the whisky industry and salmon culture.
Scotland would inevitably be treated as a region and rolled over by Brussels, its interest sacrificed, through lack of clout, for a paltry regional grant. Scotland would lose the last genuinely democratic means of voicing opposition to a federalist bureaucracy, and any opportunity to change that bureaucracy.
§ Mr. Hargreaves
No. I have 10 minutes, and I shall therefore not give way.
1120 If the Labour party does not address the West Lothian question, and does not clarify its taxation policy for a Scottish Parliament or a Scottish Assembly, we shall accuse it of depending for its majority, undemocratically, on a surfeit of Scottish Members spending predominantly English taxpayers' money, while English Members have no say in the expenditure of money in Scotland. That would be a mockery, and a travesty of democracy.
Every time a patient dies unexpectedly or while awaiting treatment in an English hospital—every day, every week; drip, drip, drip—we shall remind the public in England that the Labour party is holding power because of a surfeit of Scottish Members of Parliament who are spending two and a half times as much English taxpayers' money on someone in Scotland as on a patient in Birmingham. If there was a rail accident or a road accident, the case would be more dramatic: we would be able to say, with justification, that, if the money had been spent fairly and proportionately in England, that accident might not have happened.
That form of representation could not survive. I ask Labour Members to think for a moment—would English Members not come under pressure to revisit the subject of defence and the Scottish bases that many Labour Members have fought so hard for? What future could they see for Faslane, Rosyth and Lossiemouth? I think that there would be very little future for them.
Should the Labour party be in a position to implement its policy by undemocratic means, I guarantee that we shall hound it out of England as an undemocratic party of minorities, never standing up for the majority English interest. It would be a party of ethnic ghettos. In local government, it has made such ghettos of our great cities, for purely political advantage. It would be a party of minorities—never the party of an English majority in England. We shall never let the people of England forget the contempt with which the Labour party treats an English electorate.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
We have just heard the personification of the English backlash. I can tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) that there is a considerable body of opinion in Scotland that would be happy for Trident to be taken from the River Clyde and located in his constituency.
As he was talking about Parliament being reassembled throughout the country, I had an image of the American gentleman who dismantled London bridge some years ago and reassembled it somewhere in the middle of Texas. If the hon. Gentleman was in earlier, he will have heard me quote to the Prime Minister the statistics showing that the overwhelming majority of the people of Scotland regard the Tory party as an anti-Scottish party. He has given a perfect example why.
I am tempted to ask: is this it? This is a debate on the issue that will transcend the general election campaign. For the past two and a half hours, there have not even been enough hon. Members on the Conservative Benches to make a football team. If that is the gang who will defend the United Kingdom against all the dangers that beset it, the game is probably up already.
I do not know whether he is familiar with the phrase, but I would describe the Prime Minister's speech as cauld kale het up. He was trying to return to the glories of the 1121 last election campaign. We have heard that once too often now. All that was missing was the declaration of "a thousand years of British history".
When the Prime Minister talks about a thousand years of British history, I remember the British history that I used to be asked to study at St. Andrew's university, which was English history—they just called it British history. When the Prime Minister talks about the thousand years of British history, he is, for the most part, talking about English history. A former Speaker once gave a ruling that this House was a continuance of the English Parliament, and should not be considered a separate entity after the Act of Union.
The leader of the Labour Party criticised the Prime Minister, wittily describing him as Ethelred the Unready. He then listed, quite properly, some of the changes that have been made to constitutional arrangements in recent times. It was significant, however, that he did not include the independence of Ireland in the 1920s or the 50 countries that have become independent of this place since the second world war.
The revealing aspect of the exchanges between the leader of the Labour party and the Prime Minister was how much they were playing to an English gallery. There was no doubt that the Prime Minister's audience was not in central Scotland or mid Wales, but in middle England. He wants to wrap himself in the Union Jack and seize the patriotic card.
When they have an exchange, they fling at each other the final argument about which of them has policies that are more dangerous to the integrity of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister says to the Leader of the Opposition, "You're going to break up the United Kingdom." The Leader of the Opposition says to the Prime Minister, "No, no. It's your policy that will break up the United Kingdom."
Is it not possible that both are right, and that the centre of gravity has moved so far in Scotland that resistance to change will break up the United Kingdom, and the concession of devolution will also lead to independence for Scotland? We can conclude that those on both Front Benches think that independence is very likely—they are merely bickering about how we shall get there.
The Prime Minister's attitude will alienate people in Scotland, but they will also be entitled to question the trustworthiness of the Labour party on this issue. After 20 years of arguing for a policy, I should that thought that Labour would have come up with a convincing answer to the so-called West Lothian question. The leader of the Labour party said today that the question had never been raised about Northern Ireland. That is not so. I ask the House to consider this quotation:I am sure the House will agree that there is an apparent lack of logic, for example, about steel, when Northern Ireland can, and presumably will, swell the Tory ranks tonight, when we have no power to vote on questions about steel in Northern Ireland"—[Official Report, 6 May 1965; Vol. 711, c. 1560.1That was not a Labour Back Bencher or a Tory Back Bencher, but the then leader of the Labour party, the late Harold Wilson, at Prime Minister's questions.
The point is not that we cannot have a state with constitutional anomalies, but that the anomalies depend on the good will of all. We have heard enough from the 1122 Tory benches to know that they would wish to exact revenge if the problem of the West Lothian question became a reality.
The fact that the Labour party has not prepared for that and come up with convincing answers—or even some answer, as the Liberal Democrats have—is a sign of its lack of preparation on the subject, and perhaps a lack of conviction. If Labour Members wanted to argue for the policy, surely an arrangement such as the sacrifice of a few Members of Parliament, as the Liberal Democrats suggest, or some other would have been worth devising.
The leader of the Labour party had great fun with the Prime Minister—quite successfully, I thought—quoting back old comments, and asking why those opinions were no longer valid. I should like bring back an old quotation from the late John Smith, former leader of the Labour party, who said in the Daily Record of 9 July 1992:The Labour party must keep the Scottish issue at the centre of the political stage. That's why we are campaigning for a multi-option referendum.When the Leader of the Opposition told my hon. Friend tha Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) that a multi-option referendum, giving people a valid choice between independence, devolution and the status quo, was SNP policy, he seemed to forget that it was also the policy of his predecessor—a policy that the present leader, with some help from his Scottish Front Benchers, has managed to tear up.
The key issue in this debate is sovereignty. One of the few issues on which the leader of the Labour party and the Prime Minister agreed was the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. In contrast, I agree with the right hon. Members for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that sovereignty lies with the Scottish people. Why is that important? Unless we accept that that is where sovereignty lies, any assembly or devolved parliament will be subject to pressure, or even abolition, from the Conservatives.
There has been a debate between the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland about who would abolish a Scottish Assembly at some time in the future, and under what circumstances. The Secretary of State for Scotland said that that would not happen; then he modified that comment, to say that it might happen after a referendum.
That tells us that a hostile incoming Tory Government would squeeze dry a Scottish Assembly—either through outright abolition or through gradual abolition. They would certainly do to a Scottish Assembly what they are now doing to Scottish councils throughout the land: they would squeeze the Assembly's expenditure and put it into an impossible situation.
There is an arrogance about the Tory case. The Secretary of State for Scotland made a speech a few weeks ago in Scotland that is known in common parlance as the "Defamation of Arbroath". He said that we do not need changes in Scotland, because Scotland was the fastest growing economy in Europe. Scotland is not even close to being the fastest growing economy in Europe—Ireland is. Ireland has been so over the past few years, and is forecast to remain so over the next three. That is why the House of Commons Library says that, by 2000, Ireland will overtake the United Kingdom in gross domestic product per capita. What a shock that will be for the Tory party.
1123 I have heard the fiscal threats from the Tory Benches. They should consider the parliamentary answer from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 13 January. It shows a surplus in Scottish accounts of £27,000 million since 1979. If the Labour party can be accused of wanting to hang on to Scotland for parliamentary seats, surely we can say that the Tory party wants to hang on to Scotland for our resources, including our oil, gas, land, fish, water—the vested interest that the Tory party always represents.
The proposition that an independent Scotland would not be viable is absurd. If the proper share of Scottish resources in the North sea were added to the Scottish gross domestic product, an independent Scotland would become the eighth most prosperous country in the industrialised world. For the benefit of the Labour Front-Bench team, I can say that the United Kingdom is the 17th. The difference for an independent Scotland would be like the difference between being at the bottom of the first division, heading for relegation, and being in the premier league.
The debate has shown the bankruptcy not of Scotland or Wales, but of the Westminster Parliament and the two parties that dominate it.
§ Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)
I am the Member of Parliament for Chingford, which is a wholly English constituency, but, like so many of my constituents, I am a mixture of various parts of the kingdom that make up this United Kingdom. I was born in Scotland; my father was educated and lived much of his life in Scotland and, but for ill health, would have died in Scotland. My mother's family hail from Ireland.
The debate is a debate on the United Kingdom. Many of our constituents represent a mixture of all the nations and have benefited as a result. Many of my constituents who are Scots send money back to Scotland for their parents or relations and visit Scotland regularly. Today's debate is not, and should never be, a debate of English versus Scots or Scots versus Welsh or English. That would run against the history and success of the United Kingdom, which depends on the blending of the kingdoms—harnessing their strengths, while keeping their individuality.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
The hon. Gentleman intervenes, but there are serious differences—the process may or may not take place, but linguistically, legally and culturally, there are some significant differences. It has taken hundreds of years to blend the kingdoms; it may take thousands of years for the sort of blending of which the hon. Gentleman spoke.
I was intrigued by the speech of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). I came here expecting to hear a strong espousal of what is clearly going to be a serious plank in the Labour party's manifesto for the next election. If the right hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members are to stand on that platform, surely it is worth laying out in detail exactly what it is and how it will work. But we heard nothing of any great substance from the right hon. Gentleman. He merely skirted around the main arguments.
1124 I can imagine that last night the right hon. Gentleman had a rehearsal with the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who would have said, "Tony, you must begin with a bit of knockabout." He would then have told the right hon. Gentleman, "Make it a bit of fun and have a go at the Government Front-Bench ranks. Pull out one or two of their quotes and have some fun with them, but be careful, because the Government may get you on the changes that you have gone through over the past few years. Do a bit of that and then quickly move on to the Lords, where you can launch a hard attack because everyone knows that there is something wrong with the Lords. It's strange that, whatever we propose, we're never prepared to go the whole way on its proposals. Still, stay on that subject for a while, then quickly slide into your peroration and sit down." And that is exactly what happened.
We heard nothing of substance, although the constitution is meant to be a strong plank of their manifesto. If I were a Scots Labour Back Bencher I would wonder why the right hon. Member for Sedgefield did not lay out the case for the proposals that he and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) are making. There is a powerful argument to be made, and if he wants the people of Britain to vote Labour, surely he should be setting up the case that Labour Back Benchers want to advance. But the argument was not advanced; it was skirted around. I wonder why. There are serious issues to be discussed. I am intrigued as to why the right hon. Gentleman did not tackle it.
We have heard a lot about the tartan tax being an imposition on Scots people, who will pay more tax. Earlier, I heard the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) say from a sedentary position that the Scots may want that. Let us assume that he is correct. It has been mooted from the Opposition Front Bench that the tax will not always be increased, and that it could be decreased—there could be a reduction in income tax. The question for my constituents in Chingford is: at whose cost?
If the overall burden of tax in Scotland is reduced and the overall level of tax in Britain does not drop with it, who will have to bear the burden? Either in England or in an amalgamation of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, certain tax rates will have to rise. If a decision is handed over to someone in Scotland, others here may pay the penalty. It is an English question. It is a question about what happens to my constituents, but it was not addressed. We must address not just tax rises in Scotland, but the possibility of tax rises in England. None of those questions was answered. That is consistent with the position of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield.
The hon. Member for Hamilton, the shadow Secretary of Scotland, makes decisions, comes up with proposals and debates them among the Labour party in Scotland; suddenly a problem develops in England, and the proposals are changed quickly. The position of William Wallace was mentioned earlier—it was suggested that he was dismembered and his parts pushed around the United Kingdom. It is the same with the Scots Labour party—its head is in Islington and its heart is in Edinburgh. It stays like that: whenever the hon. Gentleman wants to make a change, he is slapped down. What is important is not what the Scots Labour Members want, but what the people in Islington want. I wonder how acceptable that is to hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies.
1125 I am concerned about the way in which the debate has proceeded. It seems to have been a ragbag of emotions, driven in part here in England by Charter 88 and by a collection of separatists and those who total independence for some of the other nations. They use the Labour party and the Liberals as their dupes, inviting them to come along to a halfway house to eventual independence.
The argument has not been about the need for change; we accept, and must always accept, that in the United Kingdom there is always a need for change—that is the purpose of our constitution: it must change. The question involves what changes are made, and how fast, and what would go with the grain of the system rather than against it. But what drives the Labour party is the fact that it has been in opposition for 17 years. It wants to get its hands on the levers of power and pull them. The Labour party's concern at never having achieved that aim has led to its anger and its belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with the system. Perhaps what is fundamentally wrong is the Labour party's inability to appeal to the British public and get them to elect it—or perhaps that has never really concerned them.
We argue endlessly that there is a need for change. I know what it is like to argue in constitutional debates on the Floor of the House. I experienced the frustration of opposing the Government during the Maastricht debates. I put an argument that I believed to be right and that later proved to be the case. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) will remember the debate on the social chapter. Since then it has been proved that we have no real opt-out. I still believe that, but the Government did not listen and pressed ahead. Of course I recognise the frustrations of the Opposition, but that does not necessarily mean that the system is absolutely wrong and needs total change.
There are answers to the West Lothian question, but the halfway house solution proposed by the Opposition is not the answer. There are two possible solutions. The first is to change the entire structure of the United Kingdom and make it a federal system. If people want that, let us debate making the United Kingdom federal. The alternative is independence for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if those nations want independence, but that is a big debate. We cannot fiddle around with the existing system, but that is exactly what the Labour party is proposing. If we do that, we shall end up in a mess. We should debate properly a complete change of the system, which is what must happen. When my right hon. Friend says that if we do that there will be no going back, he is right. We cannot go back and stick it all together again. We shall have to deal with what we have then, and in reality we shall be faced with big decisions.
There is a need for change. Anyone who has sat in this place for four years knows that. Statutory instruments have poured through, and Parliament no longer scrutinises legislation properly. That is a cause of frustration to Conservative Back Benchers as well as the Opposition. The system needs changing and Europe is deeply part of Parliament's failure properly to scrutinise. All that must change. There must be proper debate and change to our system, but I question the proposals from the Opposition, which represent a complete break from the historical trend of gradual change. They will ultimately throw the whole system over. A proper debate means dealing with that.
§ Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)
Today, the Government have displayed delusions of empire. We are hearing the last of the Englishmen trying to hold on to the last of the empire as they see it. They have never considered Scotland as a separate nation, but as a region that they govern. I remind them that the United Kingdom is a union of nations, not an agreement somewhere along the line only 290 years ago—not 1,000 years ago, when Ethelred the Unready was on the throne of England. He did not even rule over the whole of England as we now understand it. Ethelred may have been unready, but in Scotland the Conservative party is unelectable. There have now been 10 elections since the Conservatives had a majority in Scotland.
The treaty of union in 1707 was a marriage of convenience, and an arranged marriage at that. There were riots in the streets of Edinburgh and, as now, the people of Scotland were not consulted. That is why there is so much resentment. The Scottish people were brought into a marriage that they did not necessarily want, and they have never got over it. For a marriage to succeed, it has to change. It cannot continue with one partner having all the say and the other partner having none. The other partner is now demanding some of the say.
This Parliament is not sovereign. The wishes of the people of the nations of this Parliament are sovereign. The West Lothian question has a simple answer. It is not a question for the Scots or the Welsh, but for the people of England and how they wish to conduct their home affairs. In the most recent referendum the majority of Scots wanted to manage their own home affairs. They still believe that. If the people of England want to manage their home affairs, that is fine. I have absolutely no objection to that.
Day on day, the Government tell us that the Scottish Grand Committee handles Scottish affairs. If they want a simple solution, the English should have their own Grand Committee. That would be logical. We are being trailed around the length and breadth of Scotland month in, month out, week in, week out by a Tory rump. The Tories have only 10 elected Members in Scotland. We are debating subjects mainly of their choosing and we cannot vote on them.
The Scottish people have no say in that talking shop. That circus is being dragged around and the Scots are being told to listen. It is just not on any longer. The Scots will have their Parliament. The Government can be dragged to the table kicking and screaming, or they can come of their own volition, but they can be sure that the United Kingdom as they know it will not continue for very much longer. If they want to destroy it, that is entirely up to them, but the Scots are determined to have their own Parliament.
The terms of that Parliament are clearly set out by the Scottish Convention in partnership with the Liberals and many Scottish institutions, including the Churches and the trade unions. It will provide more representation for women. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I am not a great believer in quotas, but I support equal representation.
Some might consider it a travesty to reflect that, in the entire history of the Parliament, only 23 women from Scotland have ever sat on these Benches. I make no apology for saying that 50 per cent. of the seats in 1127 Edinburgh will be occupied by women. Quite frankly, it is about time that that happened. One of the great disadvantages of this Parliament for women from Scotland is the distance involved. Every week we have to travel 400, 450 or 500 miles, and the domestic arrangements of most women do not allow for that.
A Scottish Parliament would bring democracy to the people of Scotland. For the past 17 years, policies that no one wants and for which no one voted have been foisted on the people of Scotland. In my constituency, they have resulted in the loss of some 30,000 manufacturing jobs.
Every month I attend Scottish Questions. Apparently, all the questions relating to Scottish affairs have to be answered in one hour each month. Quite frankly, it is a lottery. Month after month, we put our names on the list and month after month they do not appear. The House is inundated with English Members representing English constituencies who ask questions that clearly have absolutely nothing to do with their own constituencies.
It is a matter of democracy and the representation of the people of Scotland being just that. Scottish people do not want policies foisted on them from afar, but the policies that they want being implemented near them. Most of my constituents have never seen this place. I can count on two hands the number who have visited me here in the past seven years. It is just too far for them to come, and they do not associate it with themselves. They want a Parliament that they can see and in which they can take part. They want a Parliament that they can visit and that will introduce policies that are relevant to them.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
Many of us who have attended the majority of the debate will leave the House with a profound sense of disappointment that we did not get a single answer to any of the key questions that were put to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). As my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) said, there was nothing on tax and, of course, nothing on the West Lothian question. I hope that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) will produce more answers, but I do not expect he will.
The Labour party spin doctors at the media centre at Millbank will have had an opportunity by now to work through the speech of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield, and they will have realised that he was clearly outgunned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Perhaps they will come up with an answer to the mysterious West Lothian question, unlike the hon. Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams), who said that the West Lothian question was not a question for Scotland, but a question for England.
The Leader of the Opposition treated us to a display of arrogant sophistry. He might have got away with that in a school debate, and if he had been speaking at a debating competition between Fettes school and Hamilton academy, I would have given him some points; but this is the House of Commons, which represents the British people and they cannot be treated with such arrogance as the right hon. Gentleman displayed tonight. Our democracy works in the normal way, in that all the parties set out their stalls at the general election, but the 1997 general election will be unique, in that the main opposition party—the Labour party—is not setting out its stall on tax, on Europe or on the constitution of this 1128 country. How can the people decide which way to vote if one party does not set out its stall to be judged by the electorate?
I am glad to see the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) back in the Chamber, because the people of the north will need to make a judgment about whether to support an elected regional assembly for the north, which is what the hon. Gentleman calls for. Before they vote, however, they should be told what a regional assembly for the north means, and in his speech today, the hon. Gentleman made no reference to what was involved and what it would cost. Let me tell the electorate of the north of England that the Conservative view is perfectly clear: we do not want an elected regional assembly for the north of England.
Let me warn the people of the north of England what the Labour party is up to. Labour is using an organisation called the North of England Assembly of Local Authorities as a way of promoting directly elected regional government in the north of England. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that assembly, which was set up with the perfectly justifiable aim of being a forum for local authorities in the area to discuss matters of common concern. It was not set up to promote regional government or to pilot the north of England as a candidate for regional government.
However, the advertisement in The Guardian for the successor to the secretary of that organisation asks for a "director" at double the salary that the previous incumbent of the post received. That new director would have the duties of promoting regional government and piloting the region for regional government in England. That is a disgrace. The purpose of that regional assembly has not been put to the people of the north of England at all. The assembly now has a budget of £250,000 a year, so every council tax payer in the north of England makes a contribution to the Labour party's propaganda campaign. The assembly was set up with good intentions, but has now been turned into a Trojan horse for Labour plans for devolution in this country.
The other aspect of regional government that Opposition Members have not explained is the extensive powers that it will have. It is proposed that the elected regional assembly will take over the role of the Government office for the north-east and the £0.5 billion budget that that Department controls. It will take over most aspects of the lives of the people of the north of England. Let us hear exactly what is proposed—this information comes from the Labour party's own document.
The assembly will take over matters such as business development, industrial planning, strategic planning, environment and pollution controls, purity of rivers, transport in conurbations, railway subsidies, housing and regeneration, the local sports council and arts council and the funding of further education colleges. In addition, it will move in on health arrangements, because one of the preconditions of the assembly is that it will have a right to be consulted on all allocations of health service cash and all capital expenditure in the local health authority. It will, for example, have a say in whether my new local hospital at Hexham is built.
Who will control that assembly? Sadly, we in the north of England have an unenviable reputation for local government waste, cronyism, favours to friends and 1129 sometimes outright corruption. Decades in power for the Labour party have made many Labour councillors arrogant about their voters. After being in power for so many years, the only people whom Labour councillors have to fear are usually those on their own side.
§ Mr. Atkinson
The hon. Gentleman should wait a little while.
Regional government will be about jobs for the boys and costly additional bureaucracy. The people who run it will seek to abolish some of our existing local government structures. One of the preconditions of regional government has been that we remove one tier of local government in the north. In Northumberland, it will not be the Labour-controlled county council that goes, but our district councils. True local government will be removed from the people of Northumberland in order to give jobs to the Labour boys.
Let us look at some of those Labour boys who might well get jobs. Last Saturday, The Journal, Newcastle's morning newspaper, carried three stories in a single edition on this subject. A headline on page 2 read "Police quiz council chief', and the ensuing story told how an elected councillor was being quizzed about a possible expenses fraud. On page 7, the headline was: "Councillor to liquidate print firm". The first paragraph stated:A print firm whose links with a crisis-hit North union were at the centre of a probe is set to go into liquidation, it emerged last night.The business is run by a local councillor. A senior member of a Tyneside local authority put his business into liquidation after it was revealed that his girl friend, who works for the union, was giving him £1,000-worth of work a week. He had also been working for local Labour-controlled authorities.
On page 26, there was another story about the Labour party.
§ Mr. Clelland
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are supposed to be debating the constitution. Is the way in which the hon. Gentleman is proceeding in order?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
I have been following the hon. Member's argument and seeking to perceive the connection which I hope he will shortly make. Hon. Members will know that Adjournment debates are, of their nature, fairly wide and the constitution is a fairly wide subject anyway, but I trust that the hon. Gentleman will be able to satisfy me and the House.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I can satisfy you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point I am trying to make is that, sadly, elected regional government in the north-east will be run by Labour, because the Labour party has exclusively controlled local politics in the area for many decades. It will be run as a system of jobs for the boys, and I am pointing out the sort of boys who will be getting the jobs.
1130 The third story in that edition of The Journal stated:A Labour Party official has been banned from attending party meetings after he was accused of assaulting a colleague.Those are the sort of people of whom the population of the north of England should beware. That is what regional government will mean: jobs for the boys and extra cost. It is no wonder that local business and local people do not want that form of devolution.
Members of Parliament from the north will be put in a unique position if the Labour party's constitutional reforms go through. Members of Parliament representing north-east seats will have no say in what goes on Scotland, no say in what goes on in Wales and precious little say in what goes on in their own constituency, because most of the powers that affect our constituents will have been removed and devolved to an elected assembly.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
I am grateful to be called at the fag end of the debate to give the view of my party, although it's view has been pretty well attacked by some of the speakers, not least by the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards) in the claptrap that he spoke about the economic position of Wales. I am sorry that he is not in his seat at the moment.
It is unfortunate, not only that that is the case, but that Wales has not been represented on the Front Benches during the debate. I would have expected the Secretary of State for Wales to be directly involved in a debate as important as this, and I expected the main spokesman on the Opposition Front Bench to be from Wales. Indeed, a week ago today, the Leader of the House said that he expected that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales would be the ones to participate in the debate. I believe that the people of Wales are heartily sick of the way in which the needs of Wales are marginalised within the Chamber; that is one of the most pressing reasons why we need constitutional change.
During the Prime Minister's opening speech, I put it to him that he appeared to believe that there was only one alternative to the status quo—which is unacceptable in Walesߞthat alternative being full self-government, because the Conservative party was totally and unreasonably unwilling to consider any compromise. He answered, "We shall give greater powers to the Welsh Grand Committee." In fact, he said "We have given greater powers to the Welsh Grand Committee," although Welsh Members have not seen them.
That Grand Committee is incapable of taking any decision on behalf of the people of Wales; it is a talking shop par excellence. It does not make the Executive answerable to Members from Wales, and it does not advance a Welsh agenda or formulate policy. If that is the only offering that the Conservative Government are willing to make, it is little wonder that the people of Wales believe that they have no alternative but to seek full self-government for our country.
During recent years, the failure of the existing political system to give us democracy in Wales has been exacerbated. We do not have democracy in Wales, for the most basic of reasons. As the Prime Minister said in his opening speech, he accepts and recognises that Wales and Scotland are nations in their own right. Being nations in 1131 our own right, we have slightly different priorities, values and expectations from those in England. They may be better or worse, according to the eyes of the perceiver, but they are different. Those are manifested most in the political representation that has come through from Wales to the Chamber during the 140 years since there has been some form of democracy.
It has been said—it bears repeating—that never, in any single election during that period, has Wales elected a majority of Tory Members of Parliament. Following some elections, there has not been a single Tory Member from Wales. At the moment, with a Tory Government in power, only six of the 38 Members from Wales are in the Conservative party, and three of those have majorities of fewer than 1,000 votes.
Probably, following the general election in the next two or three months, once again there will not be a single Tory Member from Wales, yet we may find ourselves governed by a Conservative party, whose values, priorities and policies are totally out of line with the needs of Wales and the wishes of the Welsh people. That is not democracy.
People argue that we are seeking an additional tier of government. That tier of government is to a large extent already in place. We have a Welsh Office, 80 attendant quangos and a Secretary of State with responsibility for £7,000 million of public expenditure, but we do not have democratic answerability for the way in which the policies that decide how those resources are used are enacted.
The past four Secretaries of State for Wales have not even been Welsh constituency Members of Parliament. They have been sent in as governors-general to run our country. The origin of the Secretary of Stateship for Wales was the idea of having a member of the Cabinet who could speak up from Welsh experience, knowing our Welsh needs, and who could articulate our hopes and fears. Instead, we now have a commercial traveller on behalf of the Cabinet in Wales, peddling Tory policies from London, not representing Wales in Cabinet.
The system that was supposed to safeguard Wales has broken down, yet the House is not willing to give an inch to allow any variation in policy formulation to meet the diverse needs of Wales. When the Welsh Language Act 1993, the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 and other Acts were going through their stages, the Committees that considered those Bills were packed with English constituency Members of Parliament, who knew nothing about what was being debated and did not have to live with the consequences of the legislation.
We want a parliament for Wales as a first step to Wales becoming a self-governing country within the European Union. In its first stage, the parliament would take over all the functions under the Welsh Office with full law-making powers, and all taxes collected in Wales would be aggregated to a Welsh Treasury Department. That parliament should also have direct links with the European Union, because we know by now how many of the decisions that affect Wales daily are taken far away in Europe, not here in Westminster.
If we have a real, effective voice for Wales in the European Union, we can expect to obtain a better deal than the pathetic bargain that has come from the representation that London has given for Wales in Brussels.
1132 This week, the Library of the House of Commons released figures showing that, in 1996, for the first time, the gross domestic product per capita of the Irish Republic overtook that of the United Kingdom as a whole. Can you imagine that being the case, Madam Deputy Speaker, if Ireland had still been governed from Westminster, and can you imagine the people of Ireland ever wanting to turn the clock back to those days when they were dying of famine?
The people of the Ireland have been able to build up their economy, first by virtue of the fact that they have control of their legislation, and secondly because they have been able to work with the grain of Europe to obtain the best deal that they can for their people. That has not happened for Wales. Ireland has been able to get 10 times as many resources per capita from the European Union than has Wales.
The people of Wales—especially the farmers of Wales, considering what has happened with the BSE during the past year, during which they have paid a price for the way in which the Government have failed to represent us—need a real parliament.
My sadness in hearing the opening speech by the Leader of the Opposition was that he made hardly any reference to Wales. There was certainly no justification for giving Scotland a parliament, albeit with inadequate powers but at least full law-making powers over some subjects, and giving Wales an assembly with no primary law-making powers whatever. That is not good enough.
We need a parliament that can make a difference in matters such as education and health, housing and employment—the matters that are important to the people of Wales. We are seeking a parliament, not just a building on the banks of the Taff instead of on the banks of the Thames so that we can say, "We have a symbol," but a powerhouse of a parliament, which can make a difference in the everyday lives of the ordinary people of Wales—their education and health, jobs and housing.
Our great fear is that, if we get only an assembly with no primary law-making powers, in five years' time we may have a Redwood-led or Portillo-led Government who will try to bring in right-wing legislation to privatise education or health. It may not apply to Scotland, where there will be a parliament with law-making powers, but it will apply to Wales, and our assembly will be nothing more than a glorified moaning shop, which cannot make any difference.
In conclusion, I make an appeal: when we have that referendum, let us ensure that it is fair. It should be a consultative referendum that gives all the people of Wales the right to express their preference. The options should be, first, full self-government in Europe; secondly, a parliament with law-making powers, rather than full self-government; thirdly, the Labour party's suggestion of an elected assembly; and, fourthly, the status quo for Tories who believe that nothing can be done to improve the situation. Those four alternatives should be on the ballot paper in a referendum, if that referendum is to be meaningful. If they are not, the referendum will not be worth the paper it is written on.
That is a challenge to the incoming Labour Government after the election. I say on behalf of the overwhelming majority of the people of Wales across 1133 party lines that Wales will not be treated as a second-class nation. We demand a parliament of our own, with real powers that will make a difference.
§ Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)
May I just say to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), and to the hon. Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams), who spoke before him, that I see a different world from them. Scotland and Wales are not second-class nations. I spent six years of my life teaching in Edinburgh and an entire year and a half on the Alec Douglas-Home constitutional committee looking at those issues. I also go, with the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, around Wales.
Those countries are transformed. They did not need a Scottish or Welsh Parliament; they have had an English Parliament, an English Government, a Scottish Office and a Welsh Office, which have transformed those countries. The Welsh pits would have declined anyway, but the Welsh economy has been transformed by the injection of Government money and by the incentives that have brought in far eastern investment to Wales and to Scotland. When I go to Scotland now, I see a road network that has been transformed.
The hon. Member for Paisley, North asked what the English want. The English in my area, Yorkshire, and in the north-east are fed up with politicians from Wales and Scotland going on like those were. The answer to the hon. Lady is that Scotland would not have got those resources had it not been part of the United Kingdom. Wales and Scotland would not have got those resources without Secretaries of State in the Cabinet fighting those battles for them.
As we saw when we studied this matter way back in 1968ߝ69—people did not like it being said then, but I shall say it again now—the people of Wales and Scotland have had a disproportionate amount of public expenditure, compared with those in Yorkshire. It is about time that people south of the border, in England, said, "Okay, you want to go your own way but there are consequences and costs. We do not want to continue putting our taxpayers' money into your countries." Had independence been achieved, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon wanted, in 1969–70, Scotland and Wales would no longer be in such a successful position. They have gained an enormous amount from being part of the United Kingdom.
I wanted primarily to deal with regional government. Those who are calling loudest for regional assemblies and parliaments are politicians. This whole constitutional debate, which will potentially waste massive amounts of time if the Labour party forms the next Government, will distract people to a meaningless subject. The proposed constitutional changes have nothing to do with things that matter to ordinary people. They will not improve the economy. The House of Lords might need reforming, but that does not affect ordinary people and their daily lives. To most people, those are relatively trivial matters. What people want is success and a better standard of living, not theory.
Politicians want devolution for their own vested interests. The Labour party in Scotland must somehow head off the nationalists, so it must offer something. In Wales, it is the same sort of political trade-off, and the 1134 rest of us must suffer as a consequence. As a result of that nonsense and the refusal to deal honestly with what is now called the West Lothian question—the logical solution to which is to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament in Westminster—the Labour party has had to come up with an incredible fudge: the so-called "regionalising" of Britain.
For 1,000 years, England has been a united kingdom—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."' There has been so much rotten history in tonight's debate. England has been united for 1,000 years. Why on earth do hon. Members want to copy the example of Germany and have regional government imposed on something which, historically, culturally, economically and politically, has no relevance to the German, French or Spanish situations? Those countries all had good historical, cultural and political reasons for setting up regions. One hundred years ago, Germany was a collection of different states that were brought together, and Spain has had great problems that needed to be redressed by regionalism. Italy was a similar case. In talking about England, we have a country that dates back 1,000 years, so regions are an artificial irrelevance.
The people of Yorkshire are proud of being in a county called Yorkshire. They do not need another region. The great cities of Yorkshire—Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield—got rid of an extra tier of government above them and fought inside their own party to abolish a Labour-run county council. They do not want another regional tier. What would it do? Let us be realistic. No one here is asking what are to be their powers or where the powers are coming from—this place or local government. They are always bound to come from local government.
The dynamic cities of Yorkshire will lose powers to some other amorphous tier. Will it bring any more money into the health service? Over the past 10 years, £133 million has been put into the health service in Leeds. Would a regional council improve on that? Of course not. There would be a fight between the various political factions to divide the spoils, and Goole might get some money—it might need some—but that would not necessarily improve the position of Leeds or Sheffield. A regional council will simply be a talking shop. It will be costly to run, it will want taxing powers and it will interfere.
Yorkshire is a dynamic county and Leeds is booming. There is nothing that a regional council could give Leeds that Leeds does not already have. Unless Opposition Members can tell the ordinary people how an extra tier of government would be more successful for them, as against the extra cost, the intervention in business and all the extra bureaucracy involved, I can see no attraction in the idea. It is being offered as a sop to Labour party members in the north of England and Yorkshire because of what is being proposed for Scotland and Wales. That is a disgrace. It is not constitutional reform; it is a constitutional nightmare.
§ 9.5 pm
§ Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
We must get the Conservative party to recognise what it has done to the country. It has destroyed the foundations of its historic success: it has destroyed deference and respect for authority. British people now wish to do things for 1135 themselves. They do not want to trust a Government in Westminster to do it. They feel confident of their ability to take decisions for themselves, in their own regions and in their own nations.
We have just heard two foolish speakers from the Conservative Benches. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made a speech that dwelt on jobs for the boys, making references that fell below the standard that I would have expected of him. If he wants to speak about jobs for the boys, let us look at the existing jobs and the existing boys.
The hon. Gentleman must recognise that there is an existing tier of regional government that is unaccountable to anyone. Look at the regional NHS executive, whose chairman, Mr. Greetham, one of the existing boys, helps to control a budget of £1 billion and runs an NHS regional executive that does not hold a single open meeting and has no public records of what it gets up to.
That is a part-time job for Mr. Greetham. He is a very busy man. He is so busy that he has been given, on the NHS, a free Land Rover Discovery. I am quite worried about him. He once had to ring me on his mobile telephone from his Land Rover. I thought to myself, "I hope they've managed to give him a handset, so that he is not speaking while holding his mobile phone. We wouldn't want the guy to be put at risk." There are existing jobs. There are existing boys.
Let us consider the main administrative functions of regional government in the north of England. Who controls the Government office for the north-east? It is Lord Fraser of Carmyllie. There is no need for the hon. Member for Hexham to shake his head. Lord Fraser is a perfectly decent bloke. In 1644, a Scottish army besieged and captured Newcastle. Fair dos, but we do not want to make a practice of it.
It is time for Lord Fraser of Carmyllie to go homeward and think again. It is time that we had a regional government in the north that could do the job that he is doing, with a block grant—no taxation needed or wanted—within the existing controlled spending totals, redeployed according to the priorities of people in the region. It is not much to ask.
We have the jobs and we have the boys; now we want a tier of democratic administration to deal with matters. We do not want to interfere with local government—that has happened far too much already. The Conservative Government have abolished two historic counties in the north. We do not want to go down that road: we want to leave matters as they are. There is a tier of central Government overseeing the health service, economic development and the administration of regeneration budgets to local authorities that we believe should be controlled and deployed democratically so that it is accountable to the people of the region.
The test of any principle occurs when things get difficult. I think that the hon. Member for Hexham dealt with some rather scurrilous issues. The test of our belief in accountability, in scrutiny and in freedom of information comes when things get awkward. I invite the hon. Gentleman—I will join him—to ask the Nolan committee to examine those issues. Nothing cannot be improved; he can put any evidence that he has before that committee. We believe that people wish to take decisions for themselves, and that more openness, transparency and confidence will give back to the British people their lives in their own neighbourhoods.
1136 The crucial point is that our proposals will be subject to the referendum test. If the hon. Member for Hexham believes that his feelings about the people of the north are correct, he will be able to campaign for a no vote in that referendum—and good luck to him. However, we believe that we have the convictions and the support of the people of the north. They want genuine, accountable, democratic government. We believe that we shall carry the vote in the referendum, and the hon. Gentleman will have to accept defeat.
§ Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)
I have great feelings of tenderness towards the devolution debate. I really enjoy getting stuck in to this argument. I look back affectionately to the last debate in 1979, when we were told that the people of Scotland and Wales were demanding assemblies. Referendums were conducted, and we found that there was no great demand. Eighteen years of Tory government followed, so we owe much gratitude to the devolution issue.
There is great inconsistency in the proposals for Scotland, for Wales, for Northern Ireland and for England. How could Scotland have a tax-raising parliament with legislative powers while Wales had, in effect, another Grand Committee? It does not make sense, as the president of Plaid Cymru, the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), has recognised. I had great hopes for this debate initially: I thought that the Opposition would provide some answers. I thought that Labour Members would discuss serious issues, such as the West Lothian question, and give some details about the tartan tax.
However, we had nothing but knockabout from the Leader of the Opposition. It was a pretty pathetic performance. He concluded by claiming that the Government lacked the courage to go to a general election. There is no lack of courage on this side: we must put important measures on the statute book, and when that is accomplished, we shall face the electorate with confidence. The right hon. Gentleman has no right to talk about courage. He shot out of the Chamber like a scalded cat on Monday because he was too embarrassed to stay and witness Labour's great flop in the disgraceful vote that he had forced. He cannot talk about courage with any conviction.
I compliment the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who at least tried to address the issues, although I do not agree with what he said. The Liberals are honest in their beliefs about a Scottish Parliament. They believe that it would mean a reduction at Westminster in the number of Members of Parliament from Scotland. It is quite sensible that that should be so. There would be 123 Members in a Scottish Parliament—73 elected, the rest picked from party lists, party placements, and proportional representation, which the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) supports nowadays. In the past, he argued against it strenuously. Now he has capitulated. He has given up. He sits there smiling, but he has given up on his principles. In so doing, he has simply followed the line of his party leader, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
The hon. Gentleman talks about Conservative opinion back in 1974. The Conservatives were wrong at that time.It was the wrong policy, but we had the guts to face up to 1137 the mistake that we had made. We rejected the devolution policy because it would have been disastrous not only for Scotland but for the United Kingdom, so we gave up on it, and perhaps with good reason. In 1974, when we pushed that stupid argument, we lost the election. [Laughter.] That was a lesson for us.
The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) laughs, but I guarantee that a Labour Government, if ever elected, would be lucky to have more than one stretch in office, particularly if they introduced those proposals.
The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley is waving his arms about. I do not know whether he just likes to try to follow me—
§ Mr. Gallie
If the hon. Gentleman followed what I said and followed my line much more often, he would be far better advised than he is at the moment, and he probably would not have spent 18 years on the Opposition Benches.
Why am I concerned about a Scottish Parliament? Scots have a leading role to play in whatever role they choose to follow. In the United Kingdom, Scots have played that leading role and delivered the goods in a range of ways. Scots should not hide their light under the bushel. We should not retreat behind our borders. We have a leading part to play here in the United Kingdom.
I recognise the honest arguments made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who believes the things that he says. I am not sure that many others believe them, but he certainly does, and he has the confidence to push through his arguments. His are honest arguments. The Scottish nationalists talk about an independent Scotland. The Scottish Parliament offered by the Opposition would bring about the Scottish National party's objective sooner than would ever be possible through normal democratic process. Why? Let us look at the financing of the Scottish Parliament.
Even with the 3 per cent. that the Scottish Parliament could add to its budget through income tax, at least 97 per cent. of its funding would come from Westminster. The level will be set here. Scots will not control that, although they will control how the budget is spent. Just as with local authorities, every failure of the Scottish Parliament will be because it does not have enough cash. It will claim that it is strapped for cash because Westminster will not give it the money to spend.
Every local authority in Scotland complains at the moment that it cannot deliver services because it does not have enough money. Whose fault is that? Is it because local authorities waste money? Is it because they do not manage their affairs properly? They say, "It is nothing to do with us. It is the fault of the Scottish Office, which does not provide us with the readies." That is their complaint. [Interruption.] Hon. Members agree with me that that is what would happen if we were to have a 1138 Scottish Parliament. It would never have enough in the bank or in the kitty, and would always blame Westminster. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I am tired of hearing repeated sedentary observations. If hon. Gentlemen want to intervene, they must do so in the proper way.
§ Mr. Gallie
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought you were calling time on my speech; I am delighted that you were not.
Opposition Members tell us that candidates for the parliament will be selected on a 50–50 split of men and women. Is that discrimination in favour of women or in favour of males? Would it be permissible for 52 per cent. to be women, or do they want a bang-on split? They must provide much more detail.
When the hon. Member for Hamilton responds, I hope that, for once, he will deal with some of the questions that have been asked throughout the debate.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
I wonder whether the bright spark who came up with the idea of this debate has been banished to the outer areas, suddenly realising that it was one of the great classic own goals. The debate has shown a Government in turmoil. It was conceived in blind panic, as the devolution lie machine went off the rails last week with the dismissal of the Health Secretary, who is sitting with us this evening below the salt. He is out of sight of the general public, banished and well away from those in charge of the constitution.
We have heard some powerful speeches in this interesting debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) wiped the floor with the Prime Minister, who lived down to his own reputation. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) also made a powerful speech and put sensible arguments for devolution, with which we are in absolute accord. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) was Secretary of State for Wales in the last Labour Government. His dream is about to come true.
My right hon. Friends the Members for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and my hon. Friends the Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), as English Members of Parliament and as Englishmen, said categorically to the House that England has nothing to fear from our devolution proposals. In strong speeches in this Union Parliament, my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) and for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) made the case for a greater decentralisation of power.
I draw the House's attention to three speeches made by senior Members of the House from the Conservative Benches, which I thought were particularly important. The right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) and the hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) and for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made interesting and thought-provoking speeches. All of them began their remarks by saying that they disagreed with the Prime Minister, and with the thesis that our constitution should not be changed.
1139 The hon. Member for Lewes said that we should have a Bill of Rights: he quite properly put the arguments for building the European convention on human rights into British law. The right hon. Member for Enfield, North is about to leave the House, having served as a Minister for almost as long as I have been on the Opposition Front Bench. He disagreed with the Prime Minister and said that changes in the way in which we, and especially the House, operate were needed. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire disagreed with the Prime Minister on the government of London, on hereditary peers and on fixed-term Parliaments. I congratulate them on breaking the false unity of doing nothing about a British constitution that desperately needs something done about it.
I shall come to other interesting speeches in a minute. Those of us who come from Scotland were entertained by the startling contention of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). Last year, the independent Scotland to which he referred was to be the 22nd most prosperous country in the world. I estimate that a mere 10 months have elapsed between then and what the hon. Gentleman says now: on the basis of figures supplied by the Chief Secretary to the Trsry, no less, we are now to be the eighth most prosperous country in the world. I must say, as the hon. Member for Hamilton, that here is the man who could take over as manager of Hamilton Academicals and move us from the second to the premier division by the end of next month.
A deeply depressing aspect of the debate and, in particular, of the Prime Minister's opening speech, is the fact that, in all the serious discussion that has gone on here, we have heard no new ideas. There has been no vision, and not a single thought about how our constitution could be improved, modernised, or brought up to date. The present Government are bloated with the sad but profound complacency that comes from 18 years in power. Today's debate has served the country well: people outside will not have missed the sight of an Administration marked by the confusion and contradictions that lie at the heart of this Government's position. Our view—a view that is widely shared in the country as a whole—is that the way in which our constitution operates, and the way in which a Government relate to the people in a democracy, must be as modern, robust and sensitive as the times in which we live.
Opposition Members have a clear vision of what is needed. We need decentralisation of power, taking power closer to the citizens who are affected by it. We need more openness in the way in which government—
§ Mr. Robertson
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to wait? He will have 20 minutes in which to speak.
§ Mr. Robertson
I will not take an intervention at this point. [Interruption.] I wonder whether the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), can remember being enjoined, at the last Scottish Grand Committee, to remember that he is a Minister of the Crown, and perhaps behave like one for a moment or two.
We stand for the decentralisation of power to take power closer to the citizens who are affected by it, more openness in the way in which government is conducted, 1140 more democracy in the way in which decisions are made, and a more transparent judicial system, with fundamental rights for the ordinary citizen. Where, in the Prime Minister's speech, was there any Conservative vision of what needs to be improved in this country? What ideas—what proposals—have we heard for change to this deeply centralised, quango-ridden, over-secretive British system, which is so unpopular?
In Scotland, we already have devolution—bureaucratic devolution. What we want is democratic devolution. Scotland already has a Scottish Office, a Department of State that covers eight areas of responsibility dealt with by existing Departments. It has a huge budget—£14.5 billion—and a Secretary of State to whom some 21,500 public servants are accountable. He alone decides how all that money is to be spent; he alone appoints between 4,000 and 5,000 quango members, who between them, spend £7 billion of public money. We now have three times as many quango appointees as we have elected councillors. He alone decides what the priorities in Scotland will be. We are talking about one man's priorities, one man's dogma and one man's waste—about one man whose party can barely muster 15 per cent. in the latest Scottish opinion poll.
Let me say to the House, with restraint and with care, that the present arrangement is not fair, that it is not just, that it is not working, and that it is threatening the unity of our country, but all we have seen, beneath the veneer of—
§ Sir Hector Monro
Having sat through nearly all the debate, I am still awaiting an answer to a simple question. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my constituency runs along the border. Many of my constituents live in Dumfries and work in Carlisle, and many live in Carlisle and work in Scotland. Will the hon. Gentleman explain to whom those people will pay their tartan tax, and why?
§ Mr. Robertson
People in Scotland will not have their tax increased or decreased unless they have first voted in a referendum to give the Scottish Parliament the necessary power, and subsequently voted in a Scottish parliamentary election for parties who say in advance that they will use the power. To say that power is a tax is a lie. A decision will be taken by the Scottish people. The liability to pay tax will be determined, as will other taxes in the United Kingdom, by residency, the definition of which will remain the same as it is in current UK tax legislation. That is the specific answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question.
Beneath the veneer of this absolutist, unbending devotion to the wholly negative campaign for absolutely no change is a profound mass of contradictions which at one and the same time debase the argument and produce an incoherence which seriously endangers this country's unity.
1141 What a muddled, confused party are the Conservatives. The Government say in their document that their devolution plans for Northern Ireland will consolidate and strengthen the United Kingdom, but they tell us that devolution for Scotland and Wales would shatter the United Kingdom. The document proposes a 90-strong law-making assembly for Northern Ireland and states that that is how kcal people could take more power over the way their part of the country is governed, but the Government insist that a law-making parliament in Edinburgh and an assembly in Cardiff would be "teenage madness".
The party that is opposed to proportional representation proposes a PR system for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but when we propose a proportional system for Scotland and Wales, and in doing so give up the automatic advantage that we get from first past the post in those two countries, the Conservatives call it gerrymandering. The Government state:new arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland must be acceptable to the people".They propose a pre-legislative referendum as one of the Prime Minister's triple locks on the process.
When we propose a pre-legislative referendum for Scotland and Wales and White Papers, which we shall publish in advance, the Prime Minister promises to use the power of unelected peers at the other end of this building to frustrate a Bill for a referendum. They call the referendum a constitutional monstrosity. This is the Government who dare not even suggest tampering with the funding arrangements for Northern Ireland, and give it the highest per capita public expenditure in the United Kingdom. The same Government propose a punishment raid on Scotland's and Wales's fair share of the national cake as a penalty for democratising the business of running Scotland and Wales.
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a long time. In that time he must surely have noticed the special circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland; the special expenditure that is required and the special distress and sectarian difficulties that exist there. If the implication of what he says is that he would cut the expenditure on Northern Ireland against the background of the terrorism that people in Northern Ireland face, let him be specific. I hope that he will not continue with his misrepresentation of the past few minutes and the sheer, utter drivel that we have had from him since I came into the Chamber.
§ Mr. Robertson
Perhaps I may be allowed to reply to the Prime Minister. After that, I shall certainly allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene.
We do not intend to cut Northern Ireland's fair share of the United Kingdom's resources, but neither are we threatening to cut the fair share of those resources for Scotland and Wales. The Prime Minister is right when he says that Northern Ireland is special and different, but so 1142 are Scotland and Wales. They have different demands and different needs, ambitions and aspirations. Why should they be denied what the right hon. Gentleman is offering the people of Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Trimble
Will the hon. Gentleman take account of the fact that absolutely no one is suggesting that any significant fiscal power be devolved to any institution in Northern Ireland, so the arguments for maintaining the same level of services in Northern Ireland as we are entitled to are consequently overwhelming? Will he also take account of the fact that, in the current financial year, Northern Ireland expenditure is being cut in real terms, whereas expenditure in the United Kingdom is rising?
§ Mr. Robertson
I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It saves my coming back. I much admired his criticism of the Prime Minister on his double standards in offering Northern Ireland a settlement and rejecting it for Scotland and for Wales. The word that he used, although it is probably not parliamentary, was that the Prime Minister was making an ass of himself over his attitude to Scotland, and that is true.
This is the Prime Minister who tells us in a bizarre and historically illiterate speech that to tamper with the constitution would end a thousand years of British history, even though Scotland has been in the Union for only 300 years. The same Prime Minister changed a fundamental element in the British constitution to allow a single Tory Member to sue The Guardian newspaper. This is the Prime Minister who tells us that the Scots and the Welsh can vote for secession from the Union and that he will respect the decision, but who tells the same people that they cannot vote for devolution, even though it is by far the most favoured option of the Scottish people and it is that which will save the Union.
The Government say that devolution to Scotland and to Wales isthe most dangerous proposition ever put before the British people",but the same Government and the same Prime Minister have no plans to abolish the Scottish Parliament if it is set up, and many key Tory Members were proponents of exactly the same thesis in the 1970s.
§ Mr. Robertson
The finger of the Secretary of State for Scotland points at the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). I am not going to give way. He had better listen to what I have to say.
The finger points, and no wonder, because the tragedy of the hypocrisy, confusion and contradiction behind the Government's position is that the people of Scotland and of Wales are being used as pawns in a dangerously cynical game between wreck-it-all separatists and change-nothing Unionists—a genuine conspiracy between the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan to deny the people of Scotland what is their proper vote. Both of them have an interest in polarising the home rule debate between separatism and the status quo and in denying and defying the Scottish people, who simply want the safe, moderate and sensible improvement of the constitution, which is what we offer them.
When the Secretary of State plays these games of constitutional Russian roulette with the separatists, he plays with the very fires that could consume him and, 1143 at the same time, the unity of this country. He is a dangerously foolish man, and his party, many of whose members watch the hysteria of the present Government's arguments with absolute dismay, should take notice of the high-wire act that he is indulging in with regard to the future of this country.
The people of this country—
§ Mr. Robertson
The people of Britain know that the Conservative party has nothing to offer them in terms of constitutional change. It wants to fracture the Union. It appears that the Secretary of State for Scotland wants to encourage the idea that theirs is the only alternative, but it is absolutely not. When the Prime Minister talks about evolutionary change, he means no change.
§ Mr. Salmond
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In terms of order, am I right in saying that it is traditional in the House—and the hon. Gentleman is always defending its traditions—for an hon. Member, after he refers specifically to another hon. Member, to give way to that hon. Member?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
The rule is that the hon. Member who has the Floor has absolute discretion as to whether he gives way or not.
§ Mr. Robertson
How nice it is to see the hon. Gentleman, who preaches the secession of Scotland from the Union, cherishing the customs and conventions of the House of Commons. That tells us what is going on. I will not give way, as I have a couple of minutes to go and I have certain points that need to be made.
This Tory party, which fought against votes for women, now says no, no, no to what the people want and what they have voted for peacefully in Scotland and Wales time after time. This Tory party, which fought tooth and nail against the creation of the national health service, says that hereditary peers—voting Lords whose right to legislate owes nothing to the people and everything to historical accidents—should continue to make the laws of the land. This Tory party, which has resisted and challenged even equal pay for women, now tells us that the Scots and the Welsh can vote for separation, but not for a new revived union of nations in partnership and amity.
This Tory party and this Tory Prime Minister, who can see that the rest of the world is going down the route of decentralisation and devolved power closer to the people, have nothing to offer the people of this country but criticism, hysteria and fear.
The fact is that this Tory party and its Tory Prime Minister have become the kissing cousins of the separatists, adding paraffin to the flames of nationalism by their arrogant defiance of the sensible middle way—the way that the majority of Scots and Welsh people want to go. This Tory party, its Tory Prime Minister and the Tory Government are clinging on to power like limpets to a wreck, which has nothing left to offer the people of Britain. They should be gone before they inflict any more damage on this country of ours
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)
I should say in fairness to those hon. Members who do not attend regular Scottish debates that that was not one of the best speeches by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). What was remarkable about his speech was that he failed to answer the West Lothian question. He also failed to explain why it could be right that Scotland's people and Scotland's pensioners should have to pay an extra tartan tax so that failed Labour councillors can roost on Calton Hill and risk the integrity of the United Kingdom.
In his speech, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) promised us that he was committed to the idea of freedom of information, but information we got none. Questions we had, but answers we got none. The right hon. Gentleman not only failed to answer the West Lothian question, but it became apparent during his speech that he did not know what it was. I shall always cherish that moment when it suddenly dawned on him that it was about the functions of Scottish Members of Parliament in Scotland, as well as in England.
Those Scottish Members would have no say on health, education and housing, although they would be down here. Their sole purpose down here would be to act as Lobby fodder to enable the right hon. Gentleman to impose socialism—I should not have said that word—rather to impose his policies on England.
§ Mr. Forsyth
I will not give way. A lot of points were made in the debate and I plan to answer all of them.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield was asked to tell us who will pay tartan tax. The hon. Member for Hamilton has told us that the same rules would apply, so we will certainly work on that. We must take it then that anyone who spends fewer than 183 days out of Scotland will be liable to pay the tartan tax.
§ Mr. Forsyth
I do not intend to give way to anyone. I will answer the points raised in the debate.
The right hon. Gentleman refused to say why it was necessary to gerrymander the voting system in a Scottish parliament to achieve a gender balance. The Opposition's proposition is that a Scottish Parliament would be made up half of men and half of women, which would be achieved by putting people on a party list system. As there would be 129 Members of that Parliament, I am not quite sure what would happen to the unfortunate 129th.
The right hon. Gentleman was asked why he was proposing a tax-raising Parliament with legislative powers for Scotland but merely a talking shop for Wales, which would have no tax-raising powers. We got no answer. The right hon. Gentleman and others were asked to explain why Labour wished to impose quangos and then to turn those quangos into assemblies for the 10 regions of England when there is no demand for such assemblies. Answer came there none.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield was asked where the money would come from, and he could not tell us. The right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has 1145 made it clear that there is no extra money, over and above what the Government have planned. On our calculations, English regional assemblies would cost £270 million, and a Scottish Parliament would cost £77 million. From where will the money come? The right hon. Member for Sedgefield gave us no answer. However, we know where the money will come from—out of the health service and out of schools—to pay for those jobs for the boys, the buddies of Labour politicians.
§ Mr. Forsyth
I will give way to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield—who, for understandable reasons, could not stay to listen to all the speeches—because hon. Members made speeches that were diametrically opposed in their interpretation of what he said. Some of my hon. Friends thought that he had given a commitment, were he ever to form a Government, that any legislation on the constitution would be dealt with on the Floor in a Committee of the whole House. Others thought that he had not given such a commitment. I should be happy to give way to him, so that he can make the position clear.
There we have it. Even when we thought that the right hon. Gentleman had answered the question, he had not. When given an opportunity to answer, he refuses. It is quite extraordinary that any serious politician in the House could threaten to gerrymander our constitution by taking such business to an upstairs Committee Room. I wonder what people such as Mr. Crossman, Mr. Gaitskell and Mr. Silverman—who sat on the Select Committee on the Procedure of Public Business—would think of him? They clearly expressed the right of any hon. Memberto move that any Bill should be retained on the Floor of the House",and said that,with the exceptions indicated, the Government would for their part make a practice of refraining from moving in that sense, and of opposing such a motion if moved from another quarter.Roughly translated, that means that the sacred concept in the House is that we deal with constitutional matters on the Floor of the House in a Committee of the whole House. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield may pretend to be talking to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). However, if he is not interested enough even to uphold the procedures of the House, not only is he not fit to be Prime Minister, he is not fit for Opposition.
The right hon. Gentleman could not tell us why he believed that free legislative referendums were an appropriate procedure in the United Kingdom. If he ever walked through the door of No. 10, we would be faced with rule by plebiscite. Let us add up the number of promises for referendums officially made by Opposition Members. They are now committed to 13 referendums. Jimmy Goldsmith, look out—they are the people who should be calling themselves the Referendum party.
The right hon. Gentleman argued that his proposals for constitutional change would "enhance and strengthen" the Union. Nonsense. With his half-baked proposals, he is the midwife of separatism. Hon. Members in the Liberal and Labour parties should have seen the faces of the nationalists in this debate. In Lenin's words, they are the "useful idiots" of the separatists in the House
1146 The Leader of the Opposition has let it be known that he admires Baroness Thatcher. We saw one thing in this debate—something that Baroness Thatcher was never able to do. He was able to silence the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) who sat behind the right hon. Gentleman like a ghost, and he is the man who first asked the West Lothian question. Those who make devolution proposals are still unable to answer that question.
§ Mr. Marlow
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I regret having to raise this point of order, but I understand that it is a convention of the House that, if one has spoken in a debate, one should be here to hear the reply to it. Is it not also the convention that one should listen to the reply? Could you, Madam Deputy Speaker, prevail on the Leader of the Opposition so that, instead of talking to his colleague the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—which he has done for the past 10 minutes—he will listen to what is being said in the debate?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
That is not a point of order for the Chair, unless the conversation is of such a kind that it interferes with the working of the House.
§ Mr. Forsyth
So, answers came there none from the right hon. Member for Sedgefield. Instead, we were treated to an exploration of various commitments made in manifestos of the 1970s and early 1980s. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales pointed out so brilliantly, that was rather like the prodigal son lecturing his father on devotion and prudence.
The right hon. Member for Sedgefield might like to reflect on one point as he considers answering the questions. His predecessor as Leader of the Opposition, the late John Smith, is reported as saying:members of the party"—the Labour party—who were pressing for devolution to a Scottish Government without the loss of the office of the Secretary of State and a reduction in the number of M.P.s at Westminster were being dishonest.They are John Smith's words on the unfinished business of devolution to which the right hon. Gentleman says he is committed.
To give him credit, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) answered, or tried to answer, the West Lothian question but, being a Liberal, he gave us two completely contradictory answers. The first was that he thought there should be a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in this House. The second part of his answer was that he agreed with the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), who takes the view that English Members of Parliament only should vote on English business in this House. It may be that the right hon. Member for Yeovil is not inconsistent; perhaps he takes the view that English Members of Parliament should vote only on English business and that there should be a reduction in the number of Members coming to the House from Scottish constituencies. I think we should be told.
1147 The right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), who is a former Secretary of State for Wales, said that he was responsible for devolution in the last Labour Government. I have a word of warning for him: devolution destroyed the last Labour Government, and today we have seen how devolution will destroy this Labour Opposition and their hopes of government for ever.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) made a number of positive proposals for change. The hon. Member for Hamilton is wrong to present my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as not prepared to embrace change. My right hon. Friend is not prepared to embrace ill thought out change whereby one cannot even answer the basic question about the consequences of any change that threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom and the standing of the House.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made a splendid speech, in which he rejected a pre-legislative referendum, which he rightly presented as an assault on the rights of the House. The Leader of the Opposition would do well to read the right hon. Gentleman's speech and embrace some of the respect he has for the status and standing of the House. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield warned us that we were no longer able to get rid of Neil Kinnock on polling day, and in doing so reminded me of the point made by my right hon. Friend—that it was the former Leader of the Opposition who first warned that, if assemblies with tax-raising powers were set up, that would be the beginning of the fracture of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield seemed to be somewhat Eurosceptic. I draw his attention to the fact that the Labour party's Front Benchers' policy is to fragment England into regions and to dissolve the House into competing parliaments and assemblies in order to reduce us to a series of regions in a Europe of the regions.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) pointed out that Scottish Members of Parliament would become second-class Members at Westminster. We would not have the same status or standing. He said that it would damage Scotland's interests and our ability to maintain a strong voice at Westminster, where Scotland's budget would be determined. He rightly warned of the conflict that would arise between Edinburgh and London over funding and powers, which would lead in acrimony to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)
Has my right hon. Friend noticed, as I have, that the speeches of the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) contained not one word about the rights of the people of England? They were all about Scotland and Wales, but what about the rights of the people of England?
§ Mr. Forsyth
I agree with my hon. Friend. The leader of the Labour party needs the Scottish Members to impose socialism in Scotland through his Scottish 1148 Parliament and to impose socialism down here because he does not believe that he would be able to obtain a majority in England.
The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) put forward the case for appeasement as a way of dealing with nationalism. Nationalism should never be met with appeasement. We need to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is a love of one's own country, not the hatred of someone else's, which is what we have heard from the nationalists.
§ Mr. Forsyth
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman, because the hon. Gentleman would not give way to me.
§ Mr. Maxton
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State for Scotland intervened three or four times on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and tried to intervene again on my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), but he refuses to give way to anyone. Is that not an abuse of the customs of the House?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
I realise that there is some excitement in the House tonight, but, I repeat, it is up to the hon. Member who has the Floor to decide whether to give way.
§ Mr. Forsyth
I was happy to give way for clarification of the position on constitutional Bills being dealt with in the House, but my invitation was refused.
I draw the attention of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney to—
§ Mr. Forsyth
If I give way to the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Hamilton will accuse me of being a kissing cousin.
§ Mrs. Ewing
I shall certainly not allow myself to be accused of being a kissing cousin of the Secretary of State for Scotland. He has referred to nationalism. Would he tell the people of Denmark, the people of Sweden, the people of Finland or the people of Ireland that they had no right to govern themselves? Is not the right of self-determination enshrined in the statute books of the international community? Does he recognise that?
§ Mr. Forsyth
I do not for a moment dispute Scotland's right to be independent. I dispute the set-up proposed by the Leader of the Opposition, which would lead to independence through acrimony and disillusion. If the people of Scotland want to vote for independence, they can.
Scottish National party members are starting to sound like travelling salesmen for Ireland. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) told us that we should 1149 follow the model of Ireland. Unemployment in Ireland stands at 11.8 per cent. Here in the United Kingdom it is 7.5 per cent.
§ Mr. Forsyth
On the same basis. We want jobs and prosperity. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan ought to be aware of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) was one of those who thought that the Leader of the Opposition had made a pledge. That just goes to show that anyone dealing with the Leader of the Opposition has to read the fine print. My hon. Friend warned of the legislative quagmire that a Labour Government would get into. The people of this country are concerned about jobs, health, education, defence and law and order—all issues that we have pioneered, bringing prosperity and success.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) reminded us about Irish home rule. I should like to draw the attention of the House to a Cabinet committee's decision of 1919 about Ireland, when there was to be a devolved assembly. The view was:In regard to representation in the Imperial Parliament the Committee are clear that so long as the Imperial Parliament exercises taxing powers in Ireland, Ireland must have the right to representation in the Imperial Parliament on the basis of population. This, however, should be coupled with a provision that Irish members shall not be allowed to speak or vote on any question which in the opinion of the Speaker, if it related to Ireland, would lie within the scope of the Irish legislature.
§ Mr. Forsyth
That is precisely the point that we are trying to make. I am delighted to have the hon. Lady's support on that.
1150 We heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and a number of my other colleagues. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan gave us the usual fantasy economics about the possibility of an independent Scotland.
Our constitution is the staff of political life. It has always been subject to reform; it should never be subject to revolution. Opposition Members, for perceived party advantage, have embarked upon a reckless and incoherent course of constitutional wrecking that would reduce our country to domestic anarchy and international impotence. Behind the Charter 88 waffle and the pretended concern for Scotland and Wales lies nothing more idealistic than a cynical determination to gerrymander our constitution for party interest. It is irresponsibility—
§ Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister consistently to refuse to take interventions from Opposition Members when his Conservative colleagues have repeatedly heckled Opposition speakers?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
I have already made it clear several times and I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman did not get the message the first time. It is entirely up to the hon. Member who has the Floor whether he or she wishes to give way.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.