HC Deb 16 January 1998 vol 304 cc589-660

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government' s constitutional changes will leave the English people at a disadvantage to Scots and Welsh people, who are currently represented in this House. My Bill will give the English the same chance as the Scots and the Welsh to determine whether they should have their own Parliament. The Labour party plans to resolve the anomalies thrown up by its legislation by having English regional assemblies for which there is no real demand. We are a bit like the Tamworth pig that is running around: if we get caught, we shall be chopped up into pieces and fed to the European Union. The English people do not want to be broken up into regions. They feel English and, like the Scots and the Welsh, we want to retain our national identity. That is not wild English nationalism but a perfectly good feeling of loyalty to our native land.

Do not take my word for it. I understand that, with my background in European matters, people will think of me as slightly paranoic.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mrs. Gorman


On 21 January 1995, The Guardian stated: The Labour Party's plans for a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and optional assemblies for the English regions, are, in part, inspired by the trend to regional self-government throughout the European Union. Last February, the Financial Times stated: Regional administrations will create unnecessary rivalries, contribute to a new layer of bureaucracy and prove an increasing drain on public resources. Anyone who attended the debate on Wednesday about the proposals for regional assemblies—I know that they are not being called that yet, but that is where we are heading—will agree.

My Bill calls for a referendum on the establishment of an English Parliament with similar powers to those proposed for Scotland, which is also a kingdom in its own right. What is good for the Scottish goose is good for the English gander. The United Kingdom Parliament will remain as an umbrella to deal with taxation, defence and foreign affairs, as the Labour party has decided. There will, of course, be a lot less work to do in this House, so the English Parliament could meet in this Chamber two or three times a week.

The only thing is that Scots—and to some extent Welsh—Members of Parliament will not vote on English legislation. I feel a bit sorry for the Scots. They will become almost redundant. In their new Parliament, they will not be able to vote on legislation on such matters either. I suspect that some of them might be running down to the labour exchange with their P45s in the not too distant future. That is their problem. It is something that they have sought and will have to live with.

Strictly speaking, I am not in favour of this legislation at all. I am a Unionist and would prefer that we did not have to have it. As we are going to have to have it, I want the English to receive fair and equal treatment. I believe in the Union and that there is nothing wrong with the present system. In politics, I believe that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. However, with the reforming zeal of the new Government, whose basic platform of socialism was destroyed by the previous Conservative Administration, Labour had to come up with a new gimmick. It decided that constitutional reform would take people's minds off the failure of its policies in the past.

I believe that the driving force behind all these constitutional changes in Scotland is that the Labour party is terrified of the Scots Nats up there and thinks that by introducing the legislation it can circumvent what the nationalists have in mind, which is total independence. However, there is no such thing as semi-nationhood, and the time will come when the Scottish Labour party will find itself faced with calls for independence. That is something that we shall watch and enjoy from the Opposition Benches with a degree of sadness, because none of this need happen. But here we are, and we intend to make sure if we possibly can that the English are treated fairly.

The other thing about my proposal is that it solves the so-called West Lothian question.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way before she leaves the theme that she has been developing so eloquently. She touched on fairness. Do her constituents approach her as mine do, saying that they feel increasingly aggrieved that English voters have never yet been asked their opinion on constitutional change, devolution or anything else? They are genuinely puzzled and increasingly frustrated that everyone else seems to be asked what they want, yet the English—the majority group in the United Kingdom and the people who bankroll everyone else—have not yet been asked their view.

Mrs. Gorman

My right hon. Friend is right. The Labour party's proposals are not only crafty—the Government know that they would get a different result if they balloted the population in England—but scurrilous.

I want to praise the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). He has toiled in this garden for many years to make the country aware of the anomalies. He has received less than praise for his efforts from some of his colleagues. Therefore, if my legislation were to end up on the statute book, the work that he has put in over these years would be justified.

To develop the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), there are probably more Scots living in England than in Scotland, and they are very aggrieved at not being given a say in what is happening to their homeland. I have met Scottish people who tell me that when they go home to meet their families, they are bullied by friends and neighbours because those people think that the idea of a Scottish Parliament is daft. But, of course, they have not been given a say. We know why they are not being given a say, do we not? It is because the end result would probably be different. That is why the Labour party is being less than open about what it is up to.

No one can have been in the House last week without being aware of what was going on. Constitutional changes have been rushed through with guillotines and ill-thought-out speeches all week. All those measures will lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, an institution that has served us admirably for hundreds of years, which has defended us against our external enemies, and which has contributed to a general feeling across the nation—not only in England—of loyalty and affection for the whole of the United Kingdom and its institutions. Of course, it is not a perfect system. No system of government is, but as Churchill said, it is probably better than anything else.

The Scots voted fairly comfortably for the changes in their referendum, although not overwhelmingly. The Welsh hardly voted at all. About a quarter bothered to vote. The margin was so small, and some of the voting practices and papers so suspect, that there are proposals to review the position. So much for the Welsh wanting their own assembly.

The London referendum is also coming up. That has met slight obstacles in the past week, but I am sure that the Labour party is determined to get it through. I think that it will be a damp squib. In the soundings that Labour has made, it received from the whole of the population of the London area—about 7 million people—only 102 or 110 responses. It does not look as if the proposal will be a winner, but we have yet to see.

Then, we are also going to overturn the long tried and tested although anomalous situation in the Lords. At Question Time this week, the Prime Minister endorsed the Government's intention to dismantle the upper House. Our constitutional background and the stability that we have all taken for granted throughout our lives, our parents' lives, and way back into our ancestry, is to be turned on its head. When one does that, there are unexpected consequences. Although the Government are determined to go through with it, they may well go down as the Government who turned over the basic framework and structure of our country and the way in which we administer our affairs, and put in its place a number of rival administrations at each other's throats, fighting for the resources available, and squabbling between them.

Having been born and raised in England, I can honestly say that I have never particularly thought of myself as English, British or anything else. We had children and families who were Scottish, Irish and Welsh in our neighbourhood. We never thought of them as different from us. They were all British and part and parcel of the same family. Now, of course, if we turn on the radio and listen to the "Today" programme, and if Ministers can be persuaded to come and answer for their policies, we nearly always hear a Scottish or Welsh voice. Suddenly these people seem to be over-opinionated, perhaps overrated and over here. It is a thought that would never have crossed my mind.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Down here.

Mrs. Gorman

Down here, over the border, whatever.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Could we be clear? Is the suggestion that there should be a repatriation of Mr. Jim Naughtie?

Mrs. Gorman

And, of course, there is Mr. Humphrys, who is a Welsh gentleman. So there are two of them. Perhaps that is why they would not have me on the "Today" programme this morning. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] Is not that dreadful?

I am particularly concerned that the English are being given a second-rate alternative. The debate on Wednesday left us in no doubt that the proposals for regional assemblies were a minefield of contention. There was squabbling over boundaries and over the siting of the headquarters of the new units, and there is competition for grants from central Government and from Europe. Somehow, setting up the new institutions is supposed to bring more money into every region in the country and we shall all do better. There is not much talk about where all the money will come from and no talk at all about the cost of the extra administration or the burden that will be placed on the business community, which is the bedrock that produces the resources. The Government do not provide jobs; businesses do. They will have to bear the burden.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the arguments for the English regional assemblies advanced by the Government is that they devolve power? Is it not extraordinary that, as a consequence of their legislation, the Secretary of State will be able to override local planning authorities on every square inch of the country? If that is devolution, all the rest of the Government's proposals are equally spurious.

Mrs. Gorman

I could not agree more. The Government made it clear in their paper that in theory the assemblies will not get any more money. The regional assemblies will not have much power except the power to interfere in planning matters. I can only believe that that will cause ructions between the existing agencies—the county, district and borough councils—all of which jealously guard their powers. I have a sneaky feeling that the Government might intend to start eroding the green belt by overriding those authorities. Part of the Bill, which needs a big debate in the House, deals with that matter.

I suspect that the Labour party thinks that, through the legislation, it will establish itself in the main metropolitan centres. That is to say that it will, so to speak, take over the politics in the main cities throughout the regions. It will build its political power base from there. Everyone knows that England is the heartland of the Conservative vote, and this is the Labour party's way of trying to undermine that. [Laughter.] Of course, Labour Members think that it is a great joke now. They are wallowing, and I do not blame them, in their recent electoral result, but that will change; everything changes in time. The Labour party has two aims: to build in political advantage for itself through the regional assemblies and, at the same time, to follow the overall plan of Europe, which is to render this country into a nice set of bite-sized chunks that can be consumed. That is not my view, but the view of two papers that are much beloved of the Labour party—at least, The Guardian is.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will the hon. Lady confirm that it is the official policy of the official Conservative party that Europe is simply about cutting up the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Gorman

The Conservative party is not proposing regional assemblies for England. It is devoted to the idea of the Union. The Conservative party would not have advanced any of the Government's legislation. We believe that the United Kingdom is the proper body and that this Westminster Chamber should not have its powers altered and eroded. We do not want to end up with Scottish Members of Parliament sitting in this House with no powers over their legislation back home—legislation that affects the very people who have sent them here to look after them.

We would not have introduced the Government's legislation. It is gimmicky stuff. It was designed to help the Labour party to secure its position, and it has done so with some success in Scotland and Wales. We do not deny that gimmicks sometimes grab the public's attention, but the Scots have absolutely nothing to gain from the changes. They are entrenched in this Parliament. More than a quarter of all hon. Members were born in Scotland or Wales. If we consider the proportion of the UK population that the Scots make up, that is enormous over-representation, but no one thinks of it in that way at present, because we do not think of ourselves as being different.

Half the Cabinet are Scots born or Welsh born, and they represent Scottish and Welsh constituencies. Scottish Treasury Ministers will be voting block grants to Scotland, but people sent them here to represent them. The Secretary of State for Scotland in the Cabinet will have no jurisdiction over those grants because their distribution in Scotland will be under the authority of the new Scottish Parliament. The question arises: what about accountability? How are the Scots in this House supposed to do the duties for which their electorate sent them here? The anomalies that that will throw up will be tremendous and, I repeat, will bring ideas into the heads of other parts of the UK, including England—ideas that I am sure all hon. Members will come to deplore. I am trying to point them out, because we still have time to talk about them.

As I said, regional assemblies are being proposed not just in England. It is happening throughout Europe. The Portuguese will have a referendum on regional assemblies in February, I think. The Dutch have gone a long way along that path. The model for all that is the German Länder. The Germans are the dominant force in the European Union, and their model is being forced on us. It may suit them—historically, the Germans have had such a system. The Italians are basically a number of nation states that have come together recently. It will not come as any great surprise to them or to the Spanish, but the English and British systems are different. Force-feeding this proposal through these crafty measures needs to be exposed.

I hope that the Minister will explain the Government's game plan in all this. My view is that the Prime Minister is seeking to reduce the power of Westminster, to weaken our resistance to European domination and, who knows, perhaps when he has finished with us, to move on to the presidency of the European Union. He will be a young man when he loses his job as Prime Minister and he will still have some life left in him.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is it not significant that the treaty of Amsterdam that the Prime Minister brought back for the first time gives political direction to the President of the European Commission over the rest of the Commissioners, making that President a real President in the terms in which we would normally understand the word?

Mrs. Gorman

I absolutely agree. I also believe that the presidential qualities of our Prime Minister were well demonstrated at Question Time this week, when he behaved like Napoleon, slapping people around and ordering the troops. I have never seen such a performance. He clearly has this Napoleon streak in him, so perhaps that is where he is heading.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Still on that point, has it occurred to my hon. Friend that no leader of any country in history has ever voluntarily given his power away in the way that the power of the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is being given away, so there must be an ulterior motive? As she rightly pointed out, the ulterior motive is that the Prime Minister has set his sights on something altogether bigger: the presidency of the European Union.

Mrs. Gorman

I could not agree more. The Prime Minister is going to trade up, as people say in business.

The English have shown practically no signs of wanting to assert their separate identity. They are comfortable with being in the Union. They have never made a fuss about the fact that the Scots are over-represented in this House by about 14 seats and that the Barnett formula has given Scotland considerably more funds per head than the English receive. I know that my hon. Friends will develop that theme, so I shall not go into it in great detail. We have always, almost subliminally, recognised that the energy of the UK comes from the fact that all its talents are amalgamated. Doctor Johnson said that the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England! He takes that road because of the opportunities.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)


Mrs. Gorman

Well, he said it. I am only quoting a famous and illustrious source.

Mr. Forth

I'll say. I took that road myself.

Mrs. Gorman

My right hon. Friend is a wonderful example.

The English have been taken too much for granted. I love that song by Flanders and Swann called "Patriotic Prejudice". It ends with the words: The English are moral The English are good And clever and modest And misunderstood. That is true. The Scots and the Welsh wear their nationality on their sleeve, and good luck to them. The Scots love dressing up in brightly coloured clothes—tartans, for example. They love singing their national anthem and so do the Welsh. Hon. Members who are Scots and proud of it do the same, and we love to see them. It puts a bit of colour in our lives.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Will the hon. Lady please tell me whether she has ever seen English morris-dancing?

Mrs. Gorman

I have, and morris-dancers are very jolly, but they do not appear too often.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the kilt as currently worn was invented by a merchant from Bolton, that it was taken to the highlands in the middle of the 18th century and that he was the first to manufacture it? There is an interesting book on the subject called "The Invention of Tradition", which deals with many aspects of current Scottish culture. It shows that many were derived directly from that period and that some were produced for them by the English.

Mrs. Gorman

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which gives a wonderful example, not only of English entrepreneurship, but of the fact that we are prepared to go far and wide in order to sell our goods. Anyone who can persuade a Scottish gentleman to wear a skirt must be a very good business man indeed. It certainly beats selling fridges to Eskimos.

The English have feelings about their homeland, of course. We do not usually run around shouting about them, but we do occasionally go over the top. We have our patron saint and our national flower and flag, but we do not generally make a song and dance about it—except at the last night of the proms, when the English can be seen expressing their feelings of love and admiration for and loyalty to their country. We hear wonderful songs such as "Jerusalem" and—one of my favourites—"There'll always be an England". I love that song. There'll always be an England And England shall be free If England means as much to you As England means to me. I wonder what that song would sound like, if we had to sing: There'll always be nine regional assemblies And nine regional assemblies will be free"— [Laughter.]—wait for it: If Brussels means as much to you As Brussels means to me. It does not scan and I shall not ask hon. Members to join in the chorus, even though we all know these songs by heart.

We are not trying to drive the coach and horses of English nationalism. We are saying that, like the Scots and the Welsh, the English do have these feelings, but are perfectly prepared to build them into the United Kingdom structure. We do not want devolution if we can possibly help it, but we cannot help it because of Labour policies.

I notice now, although I never noticed before, the number of members of the Government who have Scottish and Welsh accents. A quarter of Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, are Scottish or Welsh. No one would have given that a thought until now. Nine out of 20 Cabinet members are Scottish or Welsh born and represent Scottish or Welsh constituencies.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

My hon. Friend said that a quarter of Ministers were Scottish or Welsh and then corrected herself. The Cabinet is dominated by Scots: of the 22 Cabinet Ministers, no fewer than seven—almost one third—are Scottish. Therefore, even without the Welsh, the periphery of the kingdom is grossly over-represented.

Mrs. Gorman

I entirely agree, and I know that my hon. Friend will agree that we would never have thought that, had not this legislation been around. We would have accepted the situation. When I listened to the "Today" programme, my ear was never tuned to hear the accents of those speaking. Before, it would not have occurred to me that the top posts, both in this House and in another place, are held by Scottish or Welsh people, but that thought will now start to occur to the English.

Mr. Swayne

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that, looking at the Treasury Bench, it often appears to my constituents that they are labouring under a colonial Administration. However, at the next general election, the voters have a chance to change that, without having an English Parliament. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?

Mrs. Gorman

My hon. Friends' interventions are all music to my ears. I am glad that others feel as I do, even though I am saddened by my feelings, which I did not have before. The harmony of the House and of government throughout the United Kingdom is of vital importance. The legislation will throw up all sorts of anomalies, which will open a Pandora's box of problems with which we have not needed to deal. Whatever the Labour party thinks, the move towards Scottish independence may well be unstoppable. It is obvious that the Scottish nationalists will not let up, now that they have the beginnings of a Parliament.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

My hon. Friend's back was turned, but as she was saying that the Scottish nationalists would not give way, the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) was nodding vigorously. Does not that illustrate my hon. Friend's point? The Labour party has brought forward proposals for Scottish devolution in an attempt to stop the haemorrhaging of the Labour vote to the Scottish National party. The measure is a sop to Scottish nationalism. The Labour Government believe that they will have stemmed the tide of Scottish nationalism, but, far from doing that, they will have given a huge impetus to the nationalist cause in Scotland. When the Scottish Parliament finds that it is constrained from taking action on some issue because it is a power reserved to this Parliament, the Scottish nationalists will say, "We told you from the start—we need complete independence." The measure is a recipe for turmoil.

Mrs. Gorman

I absolutely agree with everything my hon. Friend says. We sacrifice the United Kingdom at our peril. It is the focus of our loyalty and identity, which are key issues when our country is challenged by outside enemies. Those feelings are not ephemeral and sentimental, but radical and fundamental. As a biologist who spent a great deal of time working on animal behaviour studies, I know how important feelings of territoriality are throughout the animal kingdom and how important they are to survival. Those who are not scientists may feel that that is a flippant point, but I assure them that people's gut feeling when threatened is strongly related to the territory in which they live.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

Towards the beginning of her speech the hon. Lady said that, strictly speaking, she was not at all in favour of this legislation. Would she be happy if the Bill received a Second Reading, went through Report and Third Reading, moved on to the other place, returned to this House and finally ended up on the statute book?

Mrs. Gorman

Obviously, I did not make myself clear. When I said "this legislation", I was speaking of the Government's proposals to dismantle and dissect the United Kingdom. My Bill is a response to that, to ensure that the English people are given equal treatment. Fifty million people live in England: many of us are Scottish or Welsh and many are of other nationalities—we are a melting pot—but we are not being asked about the proposals in the same way as other parts of the United Kingdom. The Labour party has picked off the bits in which it thinks it can win, and it is being dishonest. That is why I am here today calling for the English to be given their own referendum on whether they, too, wish to decide their own affairs with their own elected representatives, which will, by definition, exclude people from other parts of the United Kingdom that have opted out of the Westminster/United Kingdom structure. In future, English Members of Parliament will not have any say in what I would describe as the domestic issues of Scotland, even though those issues are at least debated in the House now.

Mrs. Ewing

I have listened with courtesy and a great deal of interest to what the hon. Lady has been saying, although I am not sure whether she regards me as an outside enemy or as part of the animal kingdom. Scottish nationalists have always argued in favour of an independent Scotland, and I should like to put two brief points to her. First, there is an evolutionary process working in international politics, otherwise we would not have the United Nations or other international organisations in which all of us have pooled elements of our sovereignty for the greater good of the international community. That is fundamental to understanding where the Scottish National party comes from.

Secondly, does not the hon. Lady agree that the Scots—the people and voters of Scotland, of all the different ethnic origins—have made it clear that they want some form of Scottish Parliament? At the end of the day, they will decide the powers of that Scottish Parliament. It is not for anyone else to decide, but for the people who live and work in Scotland and who are involved in Scotland.

Mrs. Gorman

The hon. Lady forgot to mention the Scots who happen not to live in Scotland, but who live in England, and who have not been given a say. If they were given a voice and the vote went the same way, we would accept it. The Conservative party accepts that that is what happened under the democratic structure that was used—there was a good enough majority for us to accept that. We are not disputing that, but we can regret the situation because it will throw up anomalies that will mean that the feelings and the relationship between parts of the United Kingdom will undoubtedly change—they have been changed by the proposal. In future, the proposal may have consequences that we have not anticipated. I do not think that there can be semi-nationhood, which is what the Scots will get with the current legislation.

Nationhood is an absolute. Someone belongs to a nation; he believes that he is part of a nation and if he is, that is it. We are witnessing the breaking asunder of the concept of nationhood and the United Kingdom, which all the regions have adhered to, certainly for the past several hundred years.

The proposed change is not a bath into which someone can dip his toe and withdraw it if he thinks the water is too hot or cold. We cannot go back on it; the damage will be done. In England, there is no demand for the regional assemblies. In that context, I believe that there is a case for an English Parliament, which is why I have introduced my Bill.

10.11 am
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

There is a famous passage in that excellent film, "Some Like It Hot" where the rival mob is celebrating the birthday of Spats Columbo—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is the hon. Gentleman likening my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) to Marilyn Monroe?

Dr. Whitehead

More Spats than Marilyn, I am afraid.

In the film, as hon. Members will recall, a member of the rival mob contrasts the most outrageous claims about Spats's behaviour and his personal views. In the context of this debate, I have no truck with such cynicism. Some people say that the hon. Lady's Bill has an air of white flapping coats about it. On the contrary, the hon. Lady has taken the trouble to enter the private Member's Bill ballot; she has drawn together a Bill and has argued eloquently for it this morning. We should therefore take what she says at face value and argue about the detail of her Bill.

We have been helped considerably by an article that the hon. Lady wrote in the Parliamentary Review in November 1997, amusingly entitled, "Wrong division". Some people say that the article is an intemperate rant; I say that it is a carefully crafted argument in support of what she has to say this morning. It is useful to the extent that the hon. Lady sets out carefully the consequences of her Bill and her view of what might happen if the Government's present arrangements on regional devolution are put into place.

The hon. Lady says that the results of one or more local Parliaments must have two consequences—either the conversion of our unitary parliament into a federal state, with a written constitution prescribing restricted powers of the federal and local parliaments, or complete dissolution of the nation. She says: There is no third alternative. We must accept that the hon. Lady's Bill, were it to pass successfully through the House—I was pleased that the hon. Lady seriously wishes her Bill to succeed—would lead to a federal constitution.

The notion of federalism has been advocated in some quarters and, interestingly, was analysed in some depth on previous occasions when the matter was inquired into. I am thinking particularly of the Kilbrandon commission on the constitution, which reported in 1973. Kilbrandon said of federalism:

There is very little demand for federalism in Scotland and Wales and practically none at all in England. Few of our witnesses advocated it, and people who know the system well tend to advise against it. Nevertheless it is an important constitutional model midway between separatism, which we reject, and devolution, which in one form or another we favour.

Mr. Forth

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that, not only was that report produced a long time ago—since when much has changed and is still changing—but, more importantly, the issue of federalism has been raised again, owing to the Labour Government's action in creating a constitutional anomaly by giving the Scots and the Welsh degrees of devolution? That is what is different and, to follow on from the logic of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), that is what may well drive us inexorably down the road of federalism, something that Kilbrandon could not possibly have envisaged.

Dr. Whitehead

I accept that matters have changed since the Kilbrandon report, but a number of principles that he set out are enduring and deserve our attention.

In her magazine article, the hon. Member for Billericay opined that there was no third way. On the contrary, there is considerable evidence that a third way has worked elsewhere in the world and can work well in this country if given the chance to operate. Therefore, I shall make a case based on Kilbrandon's initial thoughts. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) suggests, I shall bring the issues up to date in terms of our present constitutional debate.

On federalism, Kilbrandon concludes:

A federation consisting of four units—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—would be so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England. The English Parliament would rival the United Kingdom federal Parliament; and in the federal Parliament itself the representation of England could hardly be scaled down in such a way as to enable it to be outvoted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together representing less than one-fifth of the population. A United Kingdom federation of the four countries, with a federal Parliament and provincial Parliaments in the four national capitals, is therefore not a realistic proposition. Kilbrandon has put his finger on the problem contained in the hon. Lady's Bill. Were it to complete all its stages and were the referendum to be successful, we would have a federation in a form that would prove unworkable in practice and that has never been promoted by any other country.

Mr. Grieve

I am fascinated to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments because they certainly have force. He clearly did not attend the debate on the Scotland Bill; I do not think that a single Labour English Member of Parliament attended it. Had he been present, he would have heard the Liberal Democrats say that the federal solution was an option. Labour's Scottish Members of Parliament made comments to the effect that, if a federal solution eventually emerged, so be it. Perhaps he should have a discussion with some of his Scottish colleagues.

Dr. Whitehead

The fact that the Liberal Democrats have believed, quite bizarrely, that a federal solution is a good idea for the UK does not necessarily make it a good idea. Certain Scots believe that a federal solution might be a good idea, albeit on different lines from those suggested in the past by the Liberal Democrats, but that does not make that a good idea either. It certainly would be possible to move to a federal solution on the basis of a number of regional Parliaments in the UK, of a smaller size than for England as a whole, which is what the hon. Member for Billericay advocates. However, that is not what the Government, nor anybody in the House, propose.

The issue facing us this morning—the nub of the Bill—is a proposal which Kilbrandon devastatingly said was not workable in terms of the constitutional imbalance that it would create.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

The hon. Gentleman says that he opposes the Bill because of the constitutional imbalance that would result. Would he care to comment on the constitutional imbalance that would be created by the Government's proposals, especially given that the West Lothian question remains completely unanswered?

Dr. Whitehead

The constitutional imbalance described in the Kilbrandon report arises as a result of a thorough and permanent arrangement whereby one particular Parliament of a federation has such an overwhelming dominance in terms of decision making that it effectively becomes the Parliament of the federation as a whole. The issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises are mere fleabites compared to that central point. There are issues that need to be resolved in terms of the devolutionary process, but the critique that I am putting forward is far more central. It is that the constitutional arrangements for a federal system would be so top heavy in favour of the English dimension as to be fundamentally unworkable.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how the constitutional imbalance which he fears would come about in a federal Parliament differs in principle from the so-called "imbalance" that currently exists?

Dr. Whitehead

The problem with some Conservative Members is that, despite their protestations, they do not understand that the activity on which the Government are embarked is a process, not a fixed point. They do not understand the difference between an attempt to achieve a third way between a unitary state that puts into place the aspirations, the different ways of operating and the wish to have a degree of local autonomy in various parts of what is called the United Kingdom, and the idea that we simply have a separation that would benefit nobody in the United Kingdom. We need to look at what the process would lead to. Conservative Members believe that it would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom; I believe the opposite: that it would lead to strengthening the United Kingdom because of the ability of the new arrangements to reflect the aspirations and the economic and cultural requirements of different parts of the UK.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I probably have more experience of the federal states of Europe than most others. What the hon. Gentleman has said so far shows only too clearly that the word "federal" is misused in every sense. Will he explain precisely how an imbalance will manifest itself, given that the Bill proposes no Bundesrat? When he tries to explain the imbalance, he should demonstrate the need for establishing a whole series of rules about financial funding and other responsibilities between parts of the kingdom, which the Government have so far completely ignored in drawing up their legislation.

Dr. Whitehead

A number of Conservative Members appear to believe that, if one moves in any way from a centralised unitary state, one must move towards a federal super-state in whose clutches we shall all be embroiled. The facts of history show otherwise.

In an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) said that no Government have ever given away power. That is patently untrue. Historical examples include the Zollverein and Benelux arrangements, the Swiss confederation, the Swabian league and the Lombard league in north Italy. Throughout history, sovereign states and sovereign entities have come together for their mutual advantage. That did not mean federation. It may mean confederation for advantageous purposes, but it simply does not mean that, by agreeing to collaborate with other states for mutual advantage, a state throws away its sovereignty, identity and separate purpose.

The arrangements on which this country is embarked attempt to make those different purposes, aspirations and histories confederally possible by means of voluntary arrangements that are mutually acceptable and add to the whole. They are therefore in line with real history as opposed to the invented history of the Conservative party.

Mr. Gill

Can the hon. Gentleman not see the difference between co-operating with other nations and changing a state's constitutional basis? When I told the House earlier that there was no precedent in history for rulers giving away power, the word that I was used was "voluntarily". The hon. Gentleman is now confusing the issue by comparing what states might voluntarily wish to do in co-operation with other states as against changing the whole constitutional basis of the state to which they belong.

Dr. Whitehead

I have given some examples to show that, in history, a number of states decided to change how they worked for the benefit of their citizens. It is simply facile to suggest that one must either stay with the constitutional arrangements, which in many people's eyes have not worked well in terms of dealing with their legitimate concerns about where they stand constitutionally, and how they wish to express themselves culturally, economically and administratively—

Mr. Grieve

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying and have some sympathy with it. Those matters are not written in stone and I accept that. However, is it not the case that the extraordinary aspect of the Government's proposals is that we are moving into a miasma? It has never been made clear what even the basic construct of the new constitution will be. As for regionalism, it is all murk. Does he also agree that they do not take account of English national identity? Had I suggested that Scotland should be split into two for regional government purposes, there would have been an outcry from the hon. Gentleman's Scottish colleagues on the devolution issue.

Dr. Whitehead

May I give the hon. Gentleman an example of how one might look at those issues, in terms not of an academic exercise but of something that has really happened in Europe? There has been a transition in Spain from a fascist dictatorship to a democracy—from a highly centralised state to a highly devolved state, but nevertheless a state that has retained the unitary nature of its constitution.

Mr. Rowe

The hon. Gentleman is sincere in the examples that he gives but I think that I am right to say that, in all the examples to which he has alluded, there has been a long history of coherent "personality" among all the states or provinces that have come together in some kind of agreement to give up a certain amount of their power. The Government are suggesting that, in a country where such regional identities do not exist, they should be created artificially to fit the plan. The idea that people in Kent and people in Oxfordshire have remotely anything in common that brings them together to create some kind of co-operative regional assembly is absurd.

Dr. Whitehead

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will realise that I am referring to one of the oldest nation states in Europe. One could argue that Spain has been a nation state—certainly in more or less the form that its present boundaries command—for almost as long as the United Kingdom. Spain is relevant precisely because of the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

Spain, historically, was a highly centralised nation state. Despite that, there were a number of states, areas and provinces within its boundaries that had aspirations to move along a different path. Under Franco, those aspirations were ruthlessly suppressed. The Catalonian language could not be taught in schools, and the Galician language was suppressed. In short, Spain was pursuing a path which, after Franco went, would have led to its break-up had a number of those aspirations not been taken seriously. What happened in Spain is instructive and relevant to what we are discussing today.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. Does he not understand that there is a world of difference between Catalonia and what my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) was talking about—a wholly artificial creation, spawned to give a spurious validity to Scottish devolution, from Banbury in the north, through Aldershot and round to Dover?

Dr. Whitehead

I am sorry that Opposition Members are so impatient because, in referring to Catalonia, one might make a comparison with Scotland—although not with Banbury. One might compare other areas of Spain with Banbury, and I want to make precisely that comparison. I am not suggesting—unless global warming takes a far greater hold—that Banbury will coincide exactly with Murcia, but we can make some interesting parallels.

I shall quote briefly from a section of a book entitled "Nationalism and the Nation in the Iberian Peninsula" edited by Clare Mar-Molinero and Angel Smith, a section which, I have the sad duty to inform the House, was written by me. I trust that that will not entirely prejudice it in hon. Members' eyes. They ought to take assurance from me that, at least before being elected to Parliament, I was able to discern the truth. Here is one interesting parallel: There are, however, other considerations such as the differing legal systems arising from the historical experience of various parts of Spain. Thus the first disposition of the constitution gives protection to the territorios forales, those territories with so-called foral rights, that some regions have gained through history and remain to the present day as distinct laws implying rights of self-government. The financial systems operated in the Basque country and Navarre which allow them to impose and collect the majority of taxes and then give an agreed sum to the central Government for centrally provided services are examples of these rights. One might say that that is an historical version of the right to vary taxes. In many ways, the system in the foral areas operates similarly.

The Spanish experience was no mere historical accident. With the rise of democracy in Spain, the Spanish Government decided that the linguistic regions—Catalonia, Euskadi and Galicia—should be given substantial powers of autonomy, first within a unified Spanish constitution. That was done. After that, Other regions were then offered two routes to autonomy. They could either aim for accelerated autonomy through a series of rather more rigorous procedures deriving from article 151 or could opt for more gentle and gradual procedure under article 143 which involved the consent of two-thirds of the municipal councils of each region followed by the agreement of a central Parliament. Some of this may be beginning to sound familiar to the House.

Mr. Luff

We have read the book.

Dr. Whitehead

I hope that hon. Members have read the book. It is a riveting read—I recommend it for Christmas stockings. Only one region, Andalucia, opted for the exacting but accelerated path offered by article 151, and after a referendum, obtained full autonomy in 1981. All other regions followed the second path with ultimate success. The interesting point about that process was that, other than the linguistic regions, it was widely regarded in Spain that the regions were mere historical leftovers like Wessex, Cornwall, Anglia or Mercia. The system of government under Franco was provincial, with provincial governors. One might say that the Government' s offices of the regions have, in many ways, similar powers to those of the provincial governors under Franco.

What happened was the opposite of the prediction made by the hon. Member for Billericay in her article in Parliamentary Review. In a wonderful passage—on which, no doubt, she worked for many hours to get right—she said: 'No taxation without representation', the huddled English masses will soon cry. If we are not to be represented in decisions on Scottish affairs then we should not pay for them. Nor can Scottish MPs expect to vote funds for their homelands from the pockets of English taxpayers.

Mr. Grieve

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I appreciate that we have interrupted his speech, and he has shown great courtesy. Is not the point that the Spanish system had historical entities that continued up to the 15th century and beyond before they were suppressed by the central Government? Here we are talking about a country, England—I understand his argument about Scotland—that has been a unitary state since the end of the ninth century.

To make his ideas work—to have concentric circles of devolution moving outwards from the centre—the hon. Gentleman must persuade the electorate that there are such differences between people in Kent and people in Dorset that they would wish to belong to different regions and have degrees of autonomy on that basis, rather than belonging to the entity with which many will identify, particularly once the UK is restructured—England. That is the very thing that, earlier in his speech, he said was impossible because it would create an entity that was too large to be manageable within the context of the UK.

Dr. Whitehead

I thank the hon. Gentleman for a constructive intervention, but I remind him that the situation is not quite as he sets it out. It is not the case that England has had a fully unified state since the ninth century. It is arguable that the King's writ ran around approximately half of the country until the unifying of the Tudor monarchs.

The other important argument is the remarkable fact that, if one were a time traveller and left the planet in 1391 and returned recently—as some think is the case with the hon. Member for Billericay—one would have no understanding of what on earth was going on, except when one espied the county boundaries of England. It is interesting that those county boundaries are almost exactly the same as they were in 1391.

It is also interesting that, during the recent reorganisation of local government, various polls were taken on community identity. They found that people identified strongly with their counties. Those counties in some instances derive from Saxon kingdoms, parts of Danelaw and so on. The boundaries go back as far in history as that.

It is not the case that there is no regional identity and no local feeling in the English regions other than a feeling of Englishness. That is not an accurate depiction of what takes place in England. I accept that there is not the feeling of identity comparable to Scottishness or Welshness, but there are genuinely different views on culture, economic development and localness in different parts of England, which deserve expression.

Mr. Grieve

I am fascinated to hear that, because I recently attended a meeting in High Wycombe, organized by the district council, bringing together councils in the Thames valley area. The meeting was addressed by the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, who was shocked when he discovered that his new regional construct was not welcome, because people had county identities. The hon. Gentleman should explain to the Minister that he is barking up the wrong tree.

Dr. Whitehead

It is interesting that the county identities set out in the various polls reflected, among other things, a sense of regionalism, not just of county identity. That is evidenced by the way in which some counties and local authorities have started working well together to develop their regional economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) has played a fundamental role in developing an economic agency for the north-west. I hope that she will attest to us this morning that there is a strong regional identity. There are some strong regional actors, and the setting up of regional development agencies and ultimately, one hopes, regional assemblies will underline that regional identity and make it work for the benefit not just of that region, but of England as a whole. The inclusion of differences is to the advantage of the entire economy and is not destructive of it.

To return for a moment to Spain—[Interruption.] It is an interesting example, to which I hope Opposition Members will listen carefully. They may be surprised to learn that the huddled masses of Spain—if such a thing is possible—did not declare that because Euskadi, Galicia and Catalonia had been given autonomy, they wanted a Spanish national Parliament; they did precisely the opposite. They opted for an autonomous route of their own, but not along the lines of the old provinces. They opted for autonomy on the basis of a structure quite different from that which might have been anticipated, and a variety of forms developed.

The final result is that there are now 17 autonomias in Spain. Once one demonstrates to people the opportunities that exist for expressing their cultural and economic differences within a unified whole, they will take those opportunities on board. The regional assemblies in Spain are very popular and work well. There is no evidence now, as there was immediately after the 1978 constitution, that Spain will break up. Indeed, the leaders of Catalonia in particular have veered away from the separatist arguments that they were advancing a few years ago.

Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness)

Adjacent to Spain is Andorra, which is a member of the United Nations and has all the elements of a nation state. It is entirely self-governing, yet its population is smaller than any of our counties. Would it not be sensible to consider devolution to our counties, and giving powers back to them? Andorra is not the only such country. Among others, there is Liechtenstein. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have smaller populations than many of our counties. If they can be viable as nation states, can we not give power back to some of our county councils, rather than establishing regional assemblies?

Dr. Whitehead

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that one should not be slavish about population size when considering ways in which local and regional wishes for autonomy can be expressed. I am not sure that Andorra is a good example, because its constitution is ruled by, I believe, the Bishop of Barcelona and the Bishop of Toulouse, and it is not quite the sovereign state that the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is an interesting parallel in Spain itself, where La Rioja, with a population of 260,000—

Mr. Luff

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may be useful for the purposes of comparison to hear about the experiences of other members of the European Union, but this is primarily a debate about England and many of us are anxious to get on to that subject, rather than discussing the future of the Spanish constitution.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

This is a Second Reading debate of a general nature, as the speech of the mover showed. Nothing that I have heard has been out of order.

Dr. Whitehead

If we do not learn the lessons of history, we shall be condemned for ever to repeat the mistakes of history. The case of Spain is relevant and fascinating in light of the present debate in this country.

Hon. Members will be relieved to know that I shall shortly depart from Spain. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) should be reminded that La Rioja, which was a Franco province, opted for regional autonomous arrangements, which were granted to it. The Spanish regional assemblies represent populations of widely varying sizes, ranging from 7 million in Catalonia to 260,000 in La Rioja. Some of the Spanish regions minor the size of English counties in their population.

I do not believe that there should be a size formula for regionalism. I trust that, as the arrangements in this country develop, that will be taken into account. I was delighted that, when the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions introduced the White Paper on regional development agencies, he said:

As we made clear in our manifesto, we are committed to moving, with the consent of local people, to directly elected regional government in England. That complements devolution in Scotland and Wales and the creation of a Greater London assembly. Demand for directly elected regional government varies across England, and it would be wrong to envisage a uniform approach at this stage. Local authorities and their regional partners are already creating voluntary chambers. We welcome that development and intend to build on it as a mechanism through which regional development agencies will have greater regional accountability."—[Official Report, 3 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 359.] That sets out in terms of the English agenda some aspects of the Spanish experience that I described. There is no suggestion that all regions move at the same pace, that devolution should be uniform, or that the unitary nature of the UK constitution should be broken up. Different regional aspirations and economic requirements can be given voice through the Government's proposals, which I welcome.

Finally, I shall give an example from a leading French regional academic of how French regions have worked. When the French regions were introduced, it was predicted that they would be unworkable, that they would have no resonance in the minds of French people and that they would disappear as soon as the ink was dry on the laws that brought them into being. The opposite has occurred. In referring to the French regions, the French academic says: Instead of becoming just another body to aid economic regeneration, regions can develop other roles through their ability to initiate policy and the way they can overcome the fragmentation of existing institutions responsible for formulating and implementing Government initiatives. In spite of their many difficulties, it is the innovative and dynamic role of some French regions which strikes the observer. I am sure that we shall hear this morning how regions, within a unified and unitary constitution such as continues in France, can exercise that dynamic role. It must be to the advantage of our nation to liberate the energies and the good will of those in the regions who have felt for too long that they do not have a say in their own destinies.

It is not a good idea to retreat to a laager of English nationalism because of our fears for the future. As I have shown this morning, those fears will not be realised. There is a third option between separatism and centralism. Unfortunately, in this country we are concerned about those who favour separation. However, as has been demonstrated in some quarters this morning, we should be concerned about English nationalism and how that effects the willingness of the whole country to work together for our mutual benefit.

In advancing down the path toward regional assemblies, the Government have chosen that third option. It can, and will, succeed. In a few years, like the people in Spain and France, I am sure that we shall look back and wonder what we were debating in such fearful terms. I ask the House to oppose the Bill, which would send us down an entirely different route and would lead to fear, distrust and paranoia. Labour's proposals represent the constructive way forward for this country.

10.51 am
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The debate has inevitably been sprinkled with metaphors and analogies. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) referred to the goose and the gander and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made some rather obscure motion picture references which even I, as something of a movie buff, did not follow.

I had intended to use a canine metaphor about the tail wagging the dog and I then planned to mention the English bulldog, which hon. Members will know does not have a tail. However, I decided that I might move into dangerous territory, so I dropped that idea. It might be useful instead to consider how we have reached this stage. For as long as we can remember, there has been within the United Kingdom a pampered and privileged minority that has received every possible political advantage and yet has proved to be ungrateful. I refer, of course, to the people of Scotland.

The Scots have Cabinet representation through the Secretary of State, a bureaucracy in Edinburgh that caters to their every need and over-representation in the House of Commons. To cap it all—and driven by the aforementioned privileges—the Scots have received money transfers from England that have sustained greater levels of expenditure in key areas such as health and education than in England. As my hon. Friend eloquently pointed out, the irony is that, until fairly recently, the English were prepared to accept that in a spirit of generosity and magnanimity.

It is a small political miracle that, until now, the English were prepared to accept that privileged and cosseted group within the United Kingdom. However, the Government have made a fatal mistake. Goaded by the imagined threat posed by the Scottish National party, Labour has been driven down the road of what is now called devolution. A series of novel political institutions are being created which may feed the apparently insatiable demand north of the border for more and more political privilege while, at the same time, raising questions about the relationship between England and Scotland which had not been mentioned hitherto. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to debate today the issue of an English Parliament—a subject that we did not need to discuss until now.

The blame—if blame there is to be—lies squarely with the Labour party and the Labour Government. Make no mistake about that. I have no quarrel with the Scottish National party. It has adopted a perfectly honourable position which it has pursued for a long time and for which it seeks political legitimacy. My argument is with the Labour party which, in a craven manner, has decided to respond to the perceived Scottish National party threat in Scotland by endangering the entire structure and nature of the United Kingdom. Sadly, we must face that fact.

We can no longer tolerate the position whereby the English are expected to sit by quietly while their neighbours in the United Kingdom are repeatedly asked what they want. In one of his few memorable phrases, the hon. Member for Test referred to the "culture and aspirations" of the Scots and the Welsh and the fact that they must be recognised and facilitated. He was attempting to justify the referendums in Scotland and Wales in which the people of those areas were asked, "Do you want more political power and privilege at no cost?" We know that most people in their right minds would, if asked that question, say, "Yes, I would rather like that. I would very much like more control over my own affairs with someone else paying." We got the predictable answer from Scotland and the same answer only just came out of Wales—some of us wonder whether that was the real answer, but we shall hear more about it in the next few weeks.

A key element of the Bill—which I hope the House will support overwhelmingly—is that no one has asked the English what they want. Will the hon. Gentleman try to tell me that the English do not have a culture, an identity, a sense of nation or aspirations? Those feelings might have been muted until they were goaded into being by the actions of the Labour Government. If, as was said earlier, the thousand years of English history have given us an English identity, culture and aspirations, why have we not asked the English what they want? It is very odd that the referendum process may be applied to other parts of the United Kingdom but not to that part which has a rich history and which is paying for the privileges in other parts of the United Kingdom. We are in the anomalous and rather dangerous position of having sought the views of everyone except the paymasters.

That is the first reason why the referendum suggested by my hon. Friend is not just essential but a matter of fairness. If I believed in the concept of natural justice—I do not, because I have never heard it explained satisfactorily—I might apply that term to the situation, but I think that "fairness" is easier to understand.

Secondly, we have yet to receive an answer to the West Lothian question. I believe that it is a dereliction of their duty as the custodian of our constitution—at least for the time being—that the Government have failed utterly to recognise the importance of the West Lothian question and the feelings that it will arouse increasingly among people in England. That has not happened yet because the realities have not been brought home. However, I assure the House that the matter is raised with me in Bromley and Chislehurst. When the issue is in the public mind—occasionally these matters bob up and are talked about in the House and in the media—people ask me, "Is it right that under the Government's proposals Scottish Members of Parliament will be able to dictate to us in England what is happening yet we shall have no say in what happens in Scotland?" I say, "Yes, that would appear to be the case."

Mr. Swayne

My right hon. Friend will understand that the West Lothian question is not new. In theory, it existed under the arrangements for Stormont, when there were fewer Members for Northern Ireland in this place than there are now. Is it not largely a question of degree? Might not the anomaly that we have lived with in the past be dealt with by significantly reducing the number of Scottish Members at Westminster rather than having an English Parliament?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend makes a typically constructive and helpful suggestion. I doubt, however, whether it would do the trick. I think that we are dealing with a matter more of principle than of numbers. Even if there were a much reduced number of Scottish Members, who had no role in their own domestic affairs but came down to England gratuitously to interfere in the determination of English matters in this Westminster Parliament—that is, if we did not have the Parliament that my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay is suggesting—the same resentment would potentially exist. I think that that would be the position if only a handful of Scottish Members came south.

I suppose that none of us—perhaps not even yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker—can give a satisfactory answer to our increasingly aggrieved constituents. When they ask us, as elected Members, "Will this be the case, and what is the answer?" we cannot give them an answer as things stand. I cannot imagine what the answer might be.

As I have said, it is a matter of fairness. There must be a proper political response to an important question. If it is not answered, it has within it the potential to increase the present level of resentment and the unhappiness that will be felt in England as we see new political institutions blooming and burgeoning at great expense—basically, at the expense of the English—north of the border and, to a lesser extent, in Wales.

Mr. Dalyell

The so-called West Lothian question, as it was dubbed by Enoch Powell, not by me, in 1977, goes back, in my case, to reading Morley's life of Gladstone. It was the classic fish problem. There is now—I think that the term was coined by Alan Cochrane, the commentator—the BTWLQ. "B" stands for bugger. That is not a satisfactory answer.

Mr. Forth

I defer to the hon. Gentleman's long and distinguished history in thinking about these matters and seeking to deal with them. I do not pretend that there is likely to be an easy, straightforward or even non-controversial answer to the question. I am saying that there is a question, that it remains, and that the Government are exacerbating the problem, not offering a solution.

One solution—it is attractive to me for a number of reasons—is being offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay, and that is to pursue the logic that certainly exists. The logic runs that if we are to have new late-20th-century, millennium-type warmness towards self-determination, which now seems to be up and running, that is fine. Let us do that. Let us acknowledge that the Scots and the Welsh have a view of matters. Let us pursue that to its logical conclusion. That means that we must ask the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom what they feel about autonomy and controlling their own affairs politically.

At that point we come straight to the identity of the English—that is their sense of identity and nationhood. Would they like to have a say in their own affairs in the same way as we have rather encouraged in Scotland? I concede that having an English Parliament would lead inevitably to considering having a fully fledged federated structure for the United Kingdom. That would be much better arrived at if we viewed the entire dispensation rather than deal with these matters in a piecemeal fashion.

If we had the referendum that my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay has suggested and there was a yes vote, which I believe we would and should have, at that point, if not before, serious and urgent thought should be given to the structure of the government and constitution of the United Kingdom, new as it would be and containing a number of self-determining and self-organising political entities in England, Scotland, Wales and, probably, Northern Ireland. I am careful when I refer to Northern Ireland because I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) is listening to the debate. I am rather nervous of what he might be thinking about the Northern Ireland aspect.

Mr. Quinn

Having heard the right hon. Gentleman's confidence about the outcome of a referendum on an English Parliament, would he want to sit in that Parliament, and what role would he see himself performing for his constituency?

Mr. Forth

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes. I would very much like to be a Member of an English Parliament. I would like to be the Finance Minister of the English Administration. I would like then, on behalf of my constituents in Bromley and Chislehurst, to remove the huge subsidy that my constituents are currently expected to pay to the Scots and the Welsh. That would be the first immediate service that I could render them. I should think that that would guarantee my re-election for the rest of my political life. I would then wish to continue by querying seriously the expenditure that the new federal Government would be proposing in other areas. I am excited at the prospect. That is my first bid for my next political career and my latest political reinvention of myself, which is something at which I have become rather adept over the years.

What my hon. Friends are suggesting is a matter of fairness to the English people and a proper response to what I rather loosely characterised as the West Lothian question. We could add more questions. I am tempted to say that we could ask the English in a referendum, "Would you like to continue to be part of the United Kingdom?" We could ask the English people, "Do you want to continue subsidising the Scots and the Welsh to the extent that you have been expected to do in the past?"

These questions could be asked in addition to asking the English whether they want their own Parliament. Once one starts down that road, there are endless possibilities when it comes to asking questions of the English on the simple basis of fairness. I am not saying that we should necessarily amend the Bill to include the questions that I have postulated. Perhaps we should consider a separate measure to facilitate that approach. As I have said, once we start to think in this way, many other questions arise and they all deserve and demand answers.

That is the tragedy of the position at which we have arrived. It is the tragedy, in a sense, of why we are here today. If the Government had thought out properly where they were going on these matters, had paused and thought and perhaps even set up one of their famous reviews or, dare one say, a royal commission to examine in a systematic and coherent way what our future constitution should be, that would surely have been the right way of addressing these matters. I would argue, however, that we should leave relatively well alone. It is a tragedy that half-baked and half-thought-out ideas are being imposed on us for the wrong reasons. If we are not careful, the results will be disastrous for the whole country.

Mr. Dalyell

Iain MacWhirter, the commentator, argues persuasively in this morning's edition of The Scotsman that there should be a Kilbrandon-type commission on, as he puts it, "the governance of England". Would the right hon. Gentleman be in favour of such a proposal?

Mr. Forth

In the absence of the referendum that my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay has proposed, and which I support, I suppose that such a commission might be the next best thing. As ever with these matters—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me—the terms of reference given to such a commission would be crucial. If it were to make assumptions such as, "We shall start from the point that we have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh assembly," ignoring why in some mysterious way these institutions should be different, and were then to focus on the requirements of the English, without being able to look beyond that, I would be reluctant to accept such a proposal. If such a commission were given a much wider brief, it might make a degree of sense—for example, if we were all prepared to commit ourselves, even if that meant undoing some of what is now being done in Scotland and Wales, to achieving a more coherent result—and be an approach worth taking.

Mr. Quinn


Mr. Forth

I shall give way once more, but then I really must conclude.

Mr. Quinn

On the basis of what you said—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Quinn

I am sorry. On the basis of what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier, does he agree that there is a strong possibility that the review would develop into determining a regional identity? I represent part of Yorkshire, which is split up into different counties at the moment, and the mood of my constituents is that a regional identity within Yorkshire would be the logical conclusion of the suggested review.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman is correct. If what the newspaper quoted by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has in mind is an open look at what the best arrangements and dispensations would be, I concede that it is quite possible that some regional arrangement might emerge. A word of caution, however. One must not then assume that the transfers that take place—rather invisibly at the moment, and which therefore are broadly accepted—would continue. The warning that I must give to some of my colleagues and to hon. Members on the Government Benches is that they must not assume all that currently exists and simply bolt something ostensibly rather good on to it.

If the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) were to have a Yorkshire regional assembly, which he seems to crave, I say to him in a spirit of comradeship that he must not expect huge transfers of money—which exist at the moment but are concealed—from my part of the world, in outer London, to his to continue. That is the health warning that I would place on all this.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

It is called convergence.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend has used that dread word "convergence". In a sense it would be divergence, both constitutional and economic, if we were not very careful.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay for doing the House and the nation a service by bringing this question before us today, because it enables something that has been ignored, swept aside, buried by the political establishment up to now, to be brought to the surface and discussed in a preliminary way in the House. I hope that we give her Bill a Second Reading, as that will allow the matter properly to be carried forward in the place where it should be, the House of Commons and this Parliament.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The average length of speeches so far has been about 25 minutes. Many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but many will not do so unless some brevity is introduced.

11.12 am
Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

I travelled down overnight from Lancashire in the hope that the debate would demonstrate that the Conservative party had learnt something from its election defeat. One reason for its defeat on 1 May was the fact that the status quo was not acceptable constitutionally to the majority of the British electorate. The fact that the Conservatives lost all their seats in Scotland and Wales to parties that are committed to constitutional change was a real demonstration that the Conservatives were out of kilter with the majority of the British electorate.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Borrow

Yes, but I am mindful of your words, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Dr. Lewis

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I too am mindful of your words, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman's point is not made in the case of Wales, where, despite the best efforts of the Labour Government to persuade the Welsh to vote for an assembly, it squeaked through by a mere 6,000 votes.

Mr. Borrow

If the hon. Gentleman will wait, I shall deal with that point later.

When considering the case for constitutional change, we should not examine each individual item in isolation, but recognise that we have started a process of change to modernise the British constitution to make it more democratic and accountable. We should recognise that the principle of subsidiarity—if I may use a word that is often used by the Conservative party in relation to the European Union—is important in determining the future structure of the British constitution.

There is a dynamism in the changes that the Labour party has proposed. The fact that there was overwhelming support for a Parliament in Scotland with revenue-raising powers demonstrates the extent to which the people of Scotland want devolution and constitutional change. That, to a lesser extent—I admit to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)—is also the case in Wales. We await the result of the referendum in London on setting up, once again, an all-London body. It is a significant contrast that whereas the Conservative party, when in government, was more than willing to remove, without the consent of the people, powers that had been given to set up structures, whether it be the Greater London council or other councils throughout the country, the policy of the Labour party in government is to seek consent before structures are set up. As I have said, the constitutional changes that we have set in train are dynamic.

A couple of Opposition Members mentioned the possibility that if people were offered in a referendum a possibility to bring power closer to them and to have more control over their decisions, they would be more likely to vote for those changes. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) explained the difficulties of the Bill in respect of a federal structure based on an English Parliament, a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and a Northern Ireland Assembly, and said that it would be imbalanced. The Labour party, in opposition, flagged up that the end process should ideally be based on elected assemblies throughout the English regions, with powers similar to those to be exercised by the proposed Scottish Parliament.

In a meeting at which I spoke last night in Leyland, in my constituency, there was very strong support—and some impatience—for an elected assembly for the north-west of England. The accountability mechanism of the regional development agencies, which we debated earlier this week, is not as strong as it should be. I am convinced that there will be a growing demand for an elected assembly, to which the RDAs will be accountable.

In accepting the need to bring power closer to the people, we also have to look at the changes introduced in the past 18 years by the Conservatives in respect of local government, and the extent to which many of its powers were removed and constrained. I want a democracy based on unitary local government with real powers and with revenue-raising powers, and a regional structure that is based on elected assemblies, again with revenue-raising powers. That may well mean that there is less to be done in this Chamber and that we need less bureaucracy in central London. In terms of the point made by Opposition Members about the English subsidising the Scots, there is a feeling in many English regions that they subsidise the south in terms of paying for the bureaucracy of government in London, when much of the structure could be based in the regions and be more accountable and closer to the people whom it is there to serve.

I shall touch briefly on the so-called West Lothian question. The simple fact that the process of democratic and constitutional change is dynamic means that to try to address that problem at this point is wrong. It is wrong because the system will change. I am convinced that, when the Scottish Parliament is up and running, demand in the English regions for similar powers will grow, and those of us in regions who have been arguing for many years for democratically elected assemblies—for example, for the north-west, Yorkshire and the north-east—will hope to be successful in referendums to set up similar elected assemblies in our regions.

There will come a time when the West Lothian question may have to be addressed, but we must allow the dynamism of devolution to take its course first. It also presupposes that the existing system of election to the Westminster Parliament will continue. The Electoral Reform Commission is considering the voting method for the Westminster Parliament, and it may come up with an alternative system, based on proportional representation.

Mr. Grieve

Would the hon. Gentleman care to share with us why he believes that a change in the voting system would alter his earlier arguments about regionalism and the West Lothian question?

Mr. Borrow

I said that the devolution debate would be protracted and evolutionary. If we addressed the West Lothian question during this Parliament, we would do so on the basis of the first-past-the-post system. I do not know what system the Electoral Reform Commission is likely to come up with, but that system may well affect the number of Members of Parliament representing different parts of the United Kingdom.

An interesting recent development is that proportional representation will be operating in the UK next year, and on a regional basis. That in itself will tend to strengthen regionalism and devolution in the coming years.

I shall mention briefly a point that may upset Conservative Members but which fits in with the constitutional agenda. Do they believe that power should be exercised as near as possible to the people, that it should be democratic and that there should be accountability? Those are reasons why I support strong unitary local government, elected assemblies with revenue-raising powers, a change in the electoral system, and a change in the method of decision making in Europe. Decision making in Europe should be open, and it should be accountable through elected members from each member state, not determined by the Council of Ministers.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that, if proportional representation had operated in the general election of 1 May 1997, the Labour party, with 43 per cent. of the vote, would have been utterly dependent on a third party—presumably the Liberal Democrats—to form a Government? Does he believe that that would have given a more representative result than the actual result, in which the country's wish for a Labour Government was manifested by the realisation of a Labour Government?

Mr. Borrow

The hon. Gentleman is assuming that, had we had a different voting system, people would have voted in the same way. All the evidence from 1 May is that the majority of the electorate wanted to get the Conservatives out of office and voted accordingly on the basis of each constituency. In some constituencies, that would mean that Labour supporters voted for the Liberal Democrat party or for one of the nationalist parties.

Dr. Julian Lewis


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is a debate about a referendum for an English Parliament. It is not a debate about the voting system.

Mr. Borrow

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry if I got carried away, but I believe the point is made that different voting systems produce different voting totals for different parties.

If we are going to modernise the constitution and the way in which we govern, that should be the heart of this morning's debate. Although the Bill addresses in part the need for more devolution, it does so by a method which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Test said, may lead to the dislocation and destruction of the United Kingdom, whereas Labour Members want a strengthening of democracy, a strengthening of accountability within the structure and a system that brings to an end the pressures for breaking up the United Kingdom because people feel included and more in control of their own affairs.

11.24 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) made a welcome and useful contribution to the debate; it was worth his overnight journey down from the north-west. The debate was triggered in a welcome way by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). The Bill asks two questions—should there be an English Parliament; and should we have a referendum—but leads to a series of linked questions, too.

I whole-heartedly support the Bill. I believe that there should be an English Parliament and that there should a referendum, which should have two questions, so my cards are on the table. Many of the reasons given by the hon. Member for Billericay and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) add weight to the argument for those changes. I hope that the House allows the Bill to proceed, because it would reflect badly on us, in the year in which we have been dealing with legislation to give Scotland its own Parliament and Wales its own assembly and to hold a referendum on London, if we said, when it came to England, "Sorry, England; this cannot go further."

I strongly believe that, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, in this country constitutional change has been brought about by stop-go pressure instead of a coherent approach. It has troubled me since long before I was elected that the British constitution has never developed coherently. If we do not get a grip on that, as we need to, we shall continue with an enormous number of anomalies, which continue to produce an enormous number of unfair results.

In the 1980s, when Arthur Scargill and the miners' representatives met me to lobby about miners' issues, I said to them, "It is no good coming to me now to say that you do not like the Tory Government, because the electoral system gave you the Tory Government. If, 20 years ago, you had lobbied for a fair electoral system, you would not have this Government, because the policy of the day is a direct consequence of the constitutional settlement."

Majorities in this place reflect only the electoral system. That point was made in the intervention by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on the hon. Member for South Ribble. If we had a system that reflected the public view, not only would there not be a Labour majority of 179, but there would be no Labour majority. There was no Labour majority in Britain at the recent general election. The country did not overwhelmingly vote for the Labour party: indeed, it clearly underwhelmingly voted for it. There may have been a desire for change—I take the point made by the hon. Member for South Ribble that, had we had a different system, the voting might have been different—but, on the evidence of the votes cast, the country did not want, by a majority, a Labour Government. That is indisputable; it was clear.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comment about the need for a coherent approach to constitutional reform. Will he explain his enthusiasm for an English Parliament alongside his colleagues' enthusiasm for regional development agencies, leading to, presumably, democracy in the regions, and are we to assume, therefore, that he wants a federal Parliament here, and elected regions, counties and districts? I appreciate that the Liberal Democrats have had some success in the local government elections in recent years, but is not this a bit over-indulgent?

Mr. Hughes

That is a perfectly proper question, and I shall answer it, but let me finish another general point. We are in a time when each of the other countries of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—are going through a major change. We hope that in Northern Ireland that produces a new settlement; it clearly will in Scotland and Wales. We also have on the table the regional development agency approach in England, which is an early stage of the Labour Government's thought that they may want regional government in England, although they backed off it a bit between the original commitment and the general election. It is not terribly clear that Labour is still strongly committed to regional government. It was interesting that in the debate on the referendum in London, instead of saying that the Greater London authority should be a regional government, Labour Members called it a citywide authority. I think that that was to give themselves a bit of space and leeway later.

I am English by birth, and Welsh, Scottish and English by background, so I may have some ability to understand the problems. I was born and first brought up in England, and then lived in Wales, and I have relatives in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats are in favour of a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Parliament with more power than the Government propose to provide, and traditionally have been in favour of English regional government. My party has not yet formally come out in favour of an English Parliament. I think that it is wrong about that.

I also think that it is wrong to pretend that English regions are equivalent to Scotland and Wales, which are countries. Yorkshire, the north-east and north-west are regions, which is not the same. It would be absolutely wrong to end up with a constitutional settlement that gave powers to the English regions equal to those given to Scotland or Wales. Northern Ireland is obviously anomalous, but it is the fourth component country of the United Kingdom, so should also have no equivalence to a region in England, which is a lesser creation. Northern Ireland requires its own settlement arrangement, although we appreciate the all-Ireland dimension.

Mr. Grieve

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great interest, and agree with much of what he has said. How would he address the issue raised by the Government, which clearly has some force, about the problem of creating a federal construct with disparity between the constituent parts?

Mr. Hughes

Given that you have enjoined us to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall press on, because I shall come shortly to the perfectly proper questions that have been put to me.

The present Parliament has three major constitutional flaws. First—and let us not mince our words—for years Scotland and Wales have been over-represented in the House of Commons. That is not fair, because it distorts election results. The Labour party benefits from that system, so it has defended it. It would be absolutely unacceptable if, after the Scottish Parliament had been given law-making powers, Scotland continued to be over-represented. Our party has said that there should be an appropriate reduced number of Scottish Members of Parliament, so that the ratio of electors to Members of Parliament became the same throughout the United Kingdom. There is no justification for a system that distorts the results. That will be even less acceptable when we have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly.

The second way in which this place is rigged is the electoral system. I shall not today go over the debate on that, but suffice it to say that it is clearly unjustifiable that the results of general elections do not reflect the wishes of the majority of the British people. We have never had truly majority government since the war.

The third flaw is the other place, which distorts Parliament in a most bizarre and antiquated way. I hope that it is reformed quickly. I welcome the fact that a Cabinet Committee is looking into the matter. However, I hope that the Government do not replace hereditary peers by the patronage of the Prime Minister, because replacing people who get there by birth by people who get there by appointment is arguably even a step backwards, not forwards. At least by birth there is an accidental chance that there will be a fair spread of people, whereas by patronage there is no accident at all. The other place should be all elected, lovely and antiquated though it now is. My godfather turned out accidentally to be a peer—he woke up one morning and found he was a peer because his cousin had died. The other place is an anomaly and should go.

If we had an English Parliament, the easy way forward would be for the English Members of the United Kingdom Parliament to sit as English parliamentarians. That is easy and straightforward. We, the English Members, who represent English seats, could conduct English business. There would be no extra expense, no new Chamber and no new bureaucracy would be required. To start with, we could sit on days when the United Kingdom Parliament did not sit.

The reason why we should do that touches on the West Lothian question and related questions. The settlement of money for English local government is entirely and uniquely English business, and should be of no constitutional interest to the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, other than for observation and comparison. Such business should be decided by English Members of Parliament. There is no reason why sports policy and arts policy and many other matters should not be decided by English Members.

If we wanted occasionally to sit in York or somewhere else, that would be fine by me. I am conscious that this is a country weighted towards the south-east, and as someone who was born in the north, I believe that we should correct that. We do not have to sit in London all the time, but nor do we have to build a great new building. We could sit in the free trade hall in Manchester, or in York, which was a former capital city, or in Winchester or wherever.

We should also be conscious of the fact that if we had an English Parliament, that would not necessarily mean that we should or should not have regional government. That is a separate question. My party believes that we should have regional government, and I happen to share that view. I do not think that my formula of English Members of Parliament sitting as the English Parliament produces a duplication of representation. The case for regional government in England is strong, although I accept the point made earlier that the one area that is difficult to define as a region is the south-east. Whereas the north-west, north-east, Yorkshire, south-west, west midlands, east midlands and London are fairly obvious regions, the south-east is more complicated. Is it logical for Buckinghamshire and Kent to be in the same region?

English regional government is a lesser level of government than national Government, and should deal with regional matters. We would welcome the move from regional development agencies to regional assemblies or Parliaments where that was wanted, in the next Parliament if possible.

Mr. Jenkin

In view of the hon. Gentleman's support for the idea that English Members should sit as the English Parliament, does he think it right that the suggestion that Scottish Members should sit as the Scottish Parliament was dismissed so lightly when it was made by the Conservatives at the Scottish Grand Committee? With a Labour majority in the House and the Scottish Grand Committee, the Scottish Parliament could be given such amount of power as the Government wanted it to have without having to duplicate bureaucracies and buildings.

Mr. Hughes

As it happens, I did not think that that was a particularly bad idea, as long as the electoral system used was fair. In the event, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in which the Liberal Democrats took part, came up with a preferred option that seemed to command widespread support among politicians and other Scottish interests. That seems a better approach. We might have gone down the road suggested by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), but in recent years there has been no coherent approach to constitutional reform.

Even if we had an English Parliament, a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly or Welsh Parliament, and an assembly, or whatever it may be called, in Northern Ireland, we would not necessarily be a federal country. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst rightly said, that is a separate issue. This would be the United Kingdom unitary Parliament. If we wanted to become a federal country, like Germany and many others, our four component parts would have to come together separately and they would each have separate powers. We imposed the system of a Bundestag and Bundesrat on the Germans after the war to protect various interests. Other countries have senates that represent the various states.

I was encouraged yesterday to welcome the conversion of the hon. Member for Billericay to the cause of federalism. It was a nice line, but unfair on the hon. Lady. One does not have to be a federalist to support an English Parliament. It is consistent with a unitary United Kingdom Government. I do not seek today to persuade the House to go down the road of federalism, although I would personally support it.

An item for the Northern Ireland agenda was presented from Japan last weekend. The proposal for a council of the isles seemed to command the support of the Irish Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister. It is an interesting idea, and another dimension that we should consider. There are British Isles interests. I refer to the four countries of the United Kingdom, and to the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey. Those countries all have common interests, and there ought to be a place in which we can discuss them.

I shall stick my neck out, and specify one controversial matter that ought, for example, to be discussed. I speak as a Member of Parliament a third of whose constituents—approximately—are of Irish origin. In this country—I include Northern Ireland in that—Irish citizens have full democratic voting rights, whereas in the Republic of Ireland, United Kingdom citizens have no such rights. That is no longer justifiable, and we should have a forum in which to discuss such issues.

I do not suggest that we need a forum that is constitutionally complex. We need a forum in which the four countries of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, can come together. All sorts of issues could be discussed. I could suggest, mischievously, that we could discuss, for example, offshore tax havens, but perhaps that is too topical.

If the Northern Irish are to be asked what their future should be—and, interestingly, the Irish, in the same context—and if the Welsh and the Scottish have already been asked, for heaven's sake, the English should be asked. I can perhaps say with slightly more authority even than the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—but with as much authority as the hon. Member for Billericay, as one who was born in England but is of mixed racial origin—that my constituents want to be included, and feel that they are being left out. Like me, they are proud of their Englishness, as they are entitled to be. Nationalism need not be damaging or antagonistic. Unless people have a vehicle enabling them to debate national issues, they will rightly resent the provision of such a vehicle for others.

I welcome today's debate, because I think that we have fudged the issues for far too long. The West Lothian question needs to be answered: it should not be possible for the Scots to vote on English or Welsh legislation in a one-way context, when the English or Welsh cannot vote in the same way on Scottish legislation. The sooner we sit down and deal with such issues, the better. I hope that we shall have a Speaker's Conference or a constitutional convention, in which all of us, and people outside, can take part. That would be a welcome innovation, allowing us to try to right matters in time for the next millennium.

I think that it was G. K. Chesterton who said—I have not checked the exact wording, but I quote his observation on behalf of those to whom the debate is of particular interest—"We are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet." It is about time that we did speak. If the people of England were asked, they would vote for an English Parliament and for tax-varying powers, and I believe that they would vote with enthusiasm.

11.42 am
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

The Bill seems very frivolous. It claims to be against breaking up the United Kingdom, yet it advocates doing just that. It completely misunderstands the nature of regionalism in England, and it ignores the growing awareness of the existence of a regional tier. Understanding the nature of that regional tier, the people of the regions of England understand the increasing importance of making it more democratic, more accountable and more effective in meeting their needs.

Listening to what has been said by Opposition Members, I have perceived in the Bill not just frivolity and misunderstanding, but issues that I find very worrying. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) appeared to be using the Bill to fuel the anti-European sentiment that is increasingly becoming a feature of the Conservative party. It was remarkable how frequently, while presenting her alleged case for an English Parliament, the hon. Lady felt it necessary to attack the European Community, Europe and the people of Europe. It seems that the Bill is as much about attacking Europe as it is about—supposedly—advocating the establishment of an English Parliament.

As I listened to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I became even more alarmed. He contrasted the allegedly pampered, privileged and ungrateful Scots with the allegedly generous and magnanimous English. What we have heard this morning is not simply a case for or against an English Parliament, but a vehicle for the expression of the prejudice felt by some hon. Members. That should not and cannot be ignored.

Let us get one thing clear. The proposals for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, which have been passed by the House and approved by the people of Scotland and Wales, are not about breaking up the United Kingdom. Although Opposition Members have made it clear that they oppose those measures, the proposal for a Welsh Assembly is essentially about bringing more accountability to decisions that are already being made by the Welsh Office, with its £7 billion budget and its 80-plus quangos. I find it remarkable that, even after a referendum, Opposition Members are against the idea of the people of Wales being able to make their own decisions about decisions made not by our Parliament, but by the Welsh Office. Making the system more accountable to the people of Wales—directly, with their consent—can in no way be seen as breaking up the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is about strengthening the United Kingdom, as it strengthens the people's ability to determine what happens in the various parts of that kingdom.

Mr. Rowe

As an Opposition Member, let me say that I have no objection to the Scots or the Welsh making decisions about matters that relate to them. What I object to enormously is the idea that, having been so privileged, they should also feel able to make decisions about issues relating to my constituency and my area, over which they should have no control—although they will have—when they are not accountable to my constituents.

Mrs. Ellman

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that for Wales and Scotland, decisions will continue to be made in the House of Commons on a range of issues—such as foreign policy, taxation, social security and employment—that will affect the people of those countries.

Mr. Rowe

I understand that perfectly, and I do not object to it. What I object to is the fact that people feel that they should be able to make decisions on behalf of my constituents in relation to issues that are specifically excluded from scrutiny in this place.

Mrs. Ellman

Many Opposition Members have said that they oppose what will happen in Scotland and Wales. As I have said, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is being consistent, and I do not think that he should make such comments without considering the influence that he would continue to exert over the affairs of Scotland and Wales. That underlines the fundamental fact that, in the context of the United Kingdom Government's plans to improve democracy, we are talking about maintaining the United Kingdom while strengthening the voice of those in Scotland and Wales in regard to matters that affect them. I ask Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Billericay, to think more deeply about how we might apply the principle of bringing power closer to the people directly affected when we consider what is to happen in England.

The proposal to establish a Parliament for England, apart from misunderstanding the nature of the plans for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, ignores the significance of the regions of England and the importance of listening to the varied voices of their people. England already has a regional structure. That was not known widely until relatively recently, but it is now well known and understood.

Mr. Luff

We do not have a regional structure but an administrative one, designed for administrative convenience. It is of no relevance or purpose to the people of Worcestershire that there is a Government office for the west midlands.

Mrs. Ellman

The hon. Gentleman illustrates my point. We do have a regional structure. Far from being simply administrative, it takes decisions that profoundly affect life in our regions. I am surprised that, even at this juncture, he does not understand that.

There is major spending by regional offices in England. One study identifies expenditure of some £15 billion on economic development alone. The decisions of regional offices relate to a wide range of functions, such as economic development, transport and education. Many relate to European issues. In recent years, great concern has been expressed that decisions on the disbursement of European funds intended to bring additional benefit to regions such as the north-east and the north-west have been in the hands of regional offices, where justice has not always been done.

Beyond the boundaries of regional offices, there is the question of the quango state. Many quangos operate regionally, taking decisions about the welfare and future of people in the regions without being accountable to their people. Increasingly, the important issue is not whether there should be a regional structure but how to make it more open, accountable and relevant to the needs of people in the regions.

The issues were further highlighted this week by our debate on regional development agencies. Most people believe that such agencies are essential in focusing the public and private sectors, in investing in businesses, in developing training and retraining, and in ensuring the correct supply of industrial premises and sites for development to secure jobs and prosperity. That proposition is supported by the Confederation of British Industry, British Chambers of Commerce, the Local Government Association, the Countryside Commission, the voluntary sector, and by further and higher education; by virtually everyone except the Conservative party in Westminster. It would do much good if Conservative Members were to do a little travelling around the country, where they would discover that in the regions, even their own members are enthusiastic about the case for regional development agencies.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

In that case, will the hon. Lady accept this challenge? I am happy to go with her to any region to try to identify this great enthusiasm, this burning desire for regional government. In Lincolnshire, people do not even know that they live in the east midlands, let alone want a regional assembly there.

Mrs. Ellman

Before the hon. Gentleman embarks on his travels, I suggest that he talks to the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who represented the Conservative party on a panel at an important conference in Manchester town hall on 6 November last year, organised by Granada Television. The all-day conference had a wide range of participants, including many from business. It discussed the future of the north-west and specifically considered regional development agencies and regional government. He became increasingly isolated as the day proceeded, when he spoke not only against regional government but against regional development agencies, much to the incredulity of the audience, including the majority of business participants.

After the conference, Granada conducted a poll that showed that about 67 per cent. of the participating people of the north-west thought that there should be regional government in the north-west. The right hon. Member for Devizes got a shock when he came to north-west England. Anyone who wants to tell the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) to embark on his travels should first discuss with the right hon. Gentleman his experiences that day and the snapshot response that he received from the people of the north-west.

Mr. Grieve

I should be interested to know how it was that the conference took place and from where its participants were drawn. My experience of travelling around the country, especially in the north-west, but also in the north-east, is that while urban areas desire greater regional government—a desire that may be capable of being met—outside them, there is vitriolic objection to the prospect of being governed from those very urban centres.

Mrs. Ellman

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the question of who was invited to the conference, he should address that to its organisers, Granada Television. The participants came from a wide area, and included many people from business and commerce.

Increasingly, over the past five or six years, people from across the north-west—especially but not exclusively from the business sector—have understood the importance of developing the region's economy and structure and of the need for greater accountability and openness, so that the needs of the people and businesses of the north-west can be addressed more fully and effectively.

One feature of our debate on Wednesday was the recognition that in considering economic development in the regions, it was important to examine broader issues. That has also been the experience of people in the north-west. While it is important to look at business development, it is also important to consider communications, transport and the development of our airways, roads and rail services. While we are considering the importance of the development of skills and skills training and retraining, it is important to consider higher and further education. When we do that, we start to realise that decisions in further and higher education are taken by quangos that are unresponsive to the needs of the people of the region. Therefore, it is increasingly important that we examine accountability throughout the region and understand that there is regional tier that is currently unaccountable.

One of the key features that was identified earlier this week was the accountability of the regional agency and the importance of regional chambers. Opposition Members made a number of contradictory comments about regional chambers. They claimed that they were against regional development, yet said that they wanted to see regional chambers strengthened. The way to strengthen regional chambers is to make them directly elected. In the meantime, it is appropriate that they should be identified and recognised and that they comprise mainly elected members from local authorities, so that there is a continuing dialogue between the elected base in the region and the regional agency.

If Opposition Members are really concerned about the future of England, they should not pretend that England is a monolith. They should recognise regional diversity and the differing strengths of the economy in the different regions. In trying to do something about that, they should not ignore the reality of regionalism but should realise that we need to make the existing regional structures both accountable and effective. That is the only way in which the needs of the people within our regions as well as between them can be dealt with in a proper way.

Regions cannot operate in isolation. Regional chambers and regional assemblies cannot operate in isolation either. We need to have a strong Government at the centre and we need to have strong local government. If we are to ensure that the people of England develop in a way that meets their aspirations in the best possible way, we must ensure that we have more accountable and democratic institutions.

Therefore, I say to the supporters of the Bill that it is misinformed and misguided. It rests on the assumption that the United Kingdom is being broken up, when that is not the case. The wishes and needs of the people of Wales and Scotland are correctly being taken into account. Instead of trying to create a monolith of England without recognising the importance of the regions, we should accept and welcome the fact that we are in the United Kingdom, which is very good and correct, but that within that we should bring more accountability to the existing regional structures, so that the aspirations of people throughout the United Kingdom can be fulfilled in a proper way.

12.1 pm

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) seems to confuse the interests of the national identity with the interests of regional bureaucracy, and as we had a regional development debate earlier this week, I do not propose to follow her line of argument. The decision of the Scots and Welsh people, however marginal, has posed an enormously difficult question for those of us who are principally concerned about the integrity of the United Kingdom. That fear has been made even more terrifying by the comment of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that devolution is a process, not an event. Devolution makes England, Scotland and Wales unequal partners. The problem that we must now resolve is how to deliver a fair deal to England without undermining the Union.

There has been so much deliberate misunderstanding of motive in this debate and others that I want to elaborate my motives for a moment. I do not speak as an English nationalist—quite deliberately not. I was born in and represent part of Yorkshire, so I consider myself quintessentially an Englishman. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made today perhaps the best speech that I have ever heard him make. I hope that that does not do him too much harm. Like him, I have lines in my family that go back to the west of Scotland, to mid and south Wales and to south Armagh in the north of Ireland. I consider myself an Englishman but I am, above all, a citizen subject of the United Kingdom.

I am proud of all that the United Kingdom has done in history. We have made enormous advances in literature, science and the arts and in our approach to the world. We have brought civilisation to much of the world and civilised values and tolerance in our dealing with much of it. In being proud of that, I am as proud of the Scottish engineer James Watt as I am of the Englishman Brunel.

Mr. Luff

Brunel's father was French.

Mr. Davis

I will not take corrections from my own side. I am as proud of the Scottish physicist James Clerk-Maxwell as I am of Faraday, or of Alexander Fleming as I am of Joseph Lister. I am even more proud of Adam Smith than I am of Maynard Keynes. The history of our great scientific, engineering, cultural and ethical achievements is populated with names such as Bertrand Russell, T. E. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, David Livingstone and John Macadam, none of whom was English, but they are our tradition and our history. That is what we stand for and that is what this House stands for.

Others have left their mark, if not their names, on our history. A long series of brave Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish regiments made crucial contributions to the UK's place in the world, be they the Enniskillens, who stood to the last man at Waterloo, or be they principally the Welshmen who held Rorke's Drift against thousands of Zulus. Those are all things that I, as an Englishman but United Kingdom citizen, am proud of and view as an important part of my history.

Every part of the Union has gained from and contributed to the hybrid vigour that is produced from the many strains of talent in a single United Kingdom. The Union draws its energy, enterprise, genius and courage from all its parts and we would all be more than proportionately reduced by its dissolution. Therefore, when we take pride in our traditions, we English should do so recognising that they are not English traditions, but British traditions. That is what we want to preserve today: one of the greatest and best nations that the world has seen in modern times. I support the Bill not because I am English, but because I am British and want to stay that way.

The Government's devolution policy is little more than an unstable gerrymandered mess. No attempt has been made to resolve, on a meaningful timetable, the West Lothian question or the over-representation of Scots at Westminster. That point is important too because there will be at least a five-year gap between the creation of the Scottish Parliament and a correction here.

As a result, we shall, as has already been recognised this week, have a system in which Scottish Members of Parliament can vote on purely English matters but English Members of Parliament cannot vote on Scottish matters. Furthermore, Scottish Members will be unable to vote on matters that affect their constituents. They will be left with little to do but to continue to vote on English and Welsh internal policies, where they will have lost much of their moral authority. That does not help democracy at all. It is inevitable that that state of affairs will breed tensions among the English. It is unstable and will undermine the Union.

I do not make the mistake of thinking that Celtic nationalism will disappear. Given a taste of self-government, the Scottish and some Welsh nationalists are hardly likely to stop there. They are no fools. They will use devolution as a springboard for complete separation. Strains caused by existing nationalism in Scotland and Wales, clashing with a rising English sense of injustice—not necessarily English nationalism—could threaten to tear the Union apart. There is only one logical way in which to avert that crisis. To correct that unbalanced, unfair and unsustainable constitutional settlement, we must give the English at least the opportunity of a Parliament of their own.

People of England value the Union extremely highly—so much so that they are prepared to subsume their Englishness for the Union's greater good. They have been prepared to accept disproportionately smaller parliamentary representation and to shoulder a greater economic burden than the Celtic countries. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the naturalised Englishman, I do not resent that because it is a part of the nation state's duty sometimes to look after other parts of the nation. It is for a good reason—that it is for the benefit of everyone, including the English—that we maintain the integrity and viability of the United Kingdom.

That commitment to the United Kingdom should not be mistaken for a lack of passion on the part of the English for their own country. A corrosive sense of injustice can be avoided only if the constitutional settlement is fair and seen to be fair. An English Parliament would achieve that: it would resolve the West Lothian question, cleanly and without the trade-offs that are difficult and never satisfactory. It would give a fair deal for England, with equal representation; a fair deal for the Union, with reduced nationalist tensions; and a sensible, balanced constitution would be the outcome. There has been a lot of talk about the so-called English backlash, but I cannot agree with such comments. Is it a backlash to want fairness? Of course not. Is it a backlash to want a stable and proper settlement? Of course not—it is a proper sense of what is just and right, which is something else for which Britain, not only England, has been famous over the centuries.

At the very least, the English deserve the opportunity to decide. They should be offered a referendum, just as the Scots and Welsh were, on their constitutional future. Failure to provide that option would be a shocking display of disdain for nearly 50 million United Kingdom citizens. Sadly, the Government's current proposals show just such disdain: rather than a full Parliament, the English are offered the flimsy compromise of regional assemblies—a system that will do little to solve the existing problems of devolution while bringing a host of new ones in its wake.

Regional assemblies would prove hopelessly inadequate to the task of producing a sense of attachment among their electorates. However much we disapprove of the constitution of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, they are at least constructed on historic national borders and an historic sense of national identity. Their areas are ones that people recognise and feel part of and such a sense of identity is more likely to produce a greater degree of healthy democratic participation.

Contrast that with regional assemblies. We have heard about Yorkshire—indeed, I am a Yorkshireman. Regional assemblies would become nothing more than a faceless bureaucracy, rendered unaccountable by a lack of interest among the population they purport to represent. Regional assemblies would not be a fair constitutional settlement. One could hardly say that a regional assembly is a body comparable to the Scottish Parliament, yet it would need to be to solve the West Lothian question. If the constitutional settlement does not offer equal powers to all parts of the United Kingdom, it is not a fair or sensible solution.

Regional assemblies would be bad for the English and bad for the Union. The only people whom they would truly satisfy are the architects of a federal Europe. To see England divided into devolved political units to which the English feel no attachment—units that increasingly looked to Brussels for financial aid and support—and to watch the United Kingdom break apart would suit the dreams of some federalists nicely. The regional assemblies could easily become bleak outposts of Brussels.

The hon. Member for Riverside seemed to think that that scenario is a product of Conservative imagination. I have probably had more dealings with people in Brussels and with the organs of the European Union than almost any other Member of Parliament and I can tell the hon. Lady that what I describe would not be the result of evil intent on the part of the European Union. Many people involved in the EU and its construction believe that the nation state is a dangerous entity that will lead to war.

Mrs. Ellman

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davis

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I shall not. She spoke at great length and I wish to make progress.

Those people take the view that nation states lead to war, so they want the gradual dissolution of national borders. Their goal is neither inconceivable nor evil, but it is at odds with our history, our tradition and what is best for our nation.

An English Parliament would be inherently superior to such a system; it would be a strong political identity in its own right and would engender a strong sense of belonging in English citizens. It would offer a proper, fair resolution of the constitutional mess of devolution that we have now. In addition, it would be of a sufficient size and independence to be a good deal more than an annexe of the European Union.

If we must have devolution, and it would appear that we must, at least we should have a fair and stable system that does not put the Union at risk. An English Parliament is the best way to proceed. It is logically consistent; it offers a visibly fairer deal to the English people and is most likely to encourage healthy and active democratic participation. The very least that the British people—and, in this context, the English people—should have is the chance to decide in a referendum. The Labour party was fond of saying "trust the people" in its various referendum campaigns. I say to the Government that the time has come to trust the people—to trust the English people to decide their own destiny.

12.15 pm
Mr. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

Listening to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), I felt that there was some contradiction between his commitment to the United Kingdom and his fear of a divided United Kingdom, with his espousal of an English Parliament. His notion that an English Parliament would mitigate an English sense of unfairness was undermined by his own passion.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) used most intemperate language, both in her article in the Parliamentary Review and earlier today.

Mr. Grieve

I am fascinated to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but I am confused. He may not have been present to listen to the language that his Labour Scottish colleagues used about Scotland's rights during the debate on Scottish devolution and the Scotland Bill. I can assure him that the language used by my hon. Friends has been far more temperate than much that we have heard from his Labour colleagues. Perhaps because he never bothered to attend those debates or was kept away by his Whips, he is unaware of the strength of feeling expressed there.

Mr. Cranston

I shall not rise to the bait. I shall simply say that abuse of the Scottish people does not, in my view, advance the argument.

I wish to develop one point that the hon. Member for Billericay raises in her Bill: the idea of holding a referendum. This is not an appropriate issue on which to hold a referendum now. It is not appropriate for reasons of the constitutional conventions that operate in this country.

It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has left the Chamber as he said that the Labour party did not have an organised system for constitutional change. We have a very developed system. We went to the country on a manifesto involving devolution, human rights, the operation of government and, in particular, freedom of information. We also said that we would hold a referendum on the single currency. We went to the people on all those issues and sought their judgment on 1 May. We approached constitutional change as it should be approached: we argued the case, we incorporated it in our manifesto, we went to the people and were ultimately successful. That is not the case with the Bill, which has not been taken to the country and has not been argued properly.

On the subject of referenda—or referendums, as parliamentary counsel has now authoritatively decided that we should call them—as hon. Members know, many coutries with written constitutions have provisions for holding a referendum to change the constitution. We can see good examples of that among two of our closest neighbours. The French constitution contains a provision stating that, for a change to take place, the legislature passes the necessary legislation, then matters are either taken to a referendum or there is a joint sitting of the two Houses.

Ireland may be a more appropriate example because its system is closer to ours. If the Irish constitution is to be amended, under article 46 of the constitution the amendment must be passed by the legislature and then taken to the people. Under the 1922 Irish constitution, the provisions were wider. Referendums were required not only for constitutional change but for other matters, whereas under the 1937 constitution they are confined to constitutional change. It is of historical interest that Ireland introduced that method of referendums to legitimise constitutional change. De Valera and others believed that Ireland had to break from the traditions that had hitherto operated. Australia also provides that a referendum must be held if the constitution is to change.

Although some countries with written constitutions require referendums, many important countries do not—Germany, another neighbour, is a good example. We tend to think of the United States as a country of referendums, but it has never held a referendum at national level; many have been held at state level, but the American constitution can be changed without the need to go to the people.

India may be a better example because its system of government is closer to ours. If the Indian constitution is to be changed, the matter is taken before Parliament and, except in some important cases when it is necessary to get the states' approval, changes can take effect by Parliament passing the necessary legislation by a sufficient majority. Even in countries with written constitutions, a referendum does not always have to be held.

We have a system of representative and responsible government. Members of Parliament represent their constituencies in various ways: we see our constituents in our surgeries and take up individual matters; we help groups within our constituencies; we effect introductions to Ministers; we lobby on behalf of groups in our constituencies; and we speak in this House. The hon. Member for Billericay would claim to be speaking on behalf of her constituents in introducing the Bill. That is how our system works. People are elected and they represent their constituents.

For many years, it was thought that referendums were not appropriate in our system of representative and responsible government. The old constitutional books make little reference to the holding of referendums. But, as we well know, in the 1970s important referendums were held. We must try to identify the factors necessary to trigger a referendum if we are to adhere to our constitutional conventions.

Some have argued that we should have more referendums and consult the people much more frequently.

When the constitutional unit carried out its important investigation into the conduct of referendums, it found evidence of popular support for referendums, and quoted the example of a poll in 1995 in which 77 per cent. of respondents were in favour of the use of referendums on certain issues. It also quoted more recent polling in Scotland and Wales in favour of referendums.

Some literature argues for the much wider use of referendums. In particular, literature in the United States calls for much more initiative in terms of people being able to put particular proposals on ballots, and then a referendum being held to determine the issue. However, that does not help our system in trying to identify the appropriate matters on which a referendum should be held.

In her article, the hon. Member for Billericay referred to Dicey, who casts a long shadow over the constitutional debate in this country. He discussed the conduct of referendums and was especially concerned with home rule. As a die-hard Conservative, he was determined to advance any plausible argument to try to prevent Irish home rule. However, in trying to rationalise that, he spoke of issues of transcendent importance, and mentioned changes to the monarchy and Reform Acts. He said that those constitutional issues should be taken to the people.

More recently, some constitutional law commentators have advanced other reasons. Professor Bogdanor, a noted commentator on constitutional issues, has said that where there is a transfer of powers, that is an appropriate subject for the conduct of a referendum. Professor Brazier of Manchester has said that a fundamental change in constitutional structures should be taken to the people. A number of commentators say that referendums should be conducted on important constitutional matters.

It is difficult to accommodate those views with the constitutional history of this country. There have been important constitutional changes where referendums have not been conducted. For example, the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 did not involve referendums. The Maastricht treaty did not involve a referendum. The hon. Member for Billericay and a number of Conservative Members argued for a referendum, but the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) said no. Our constitutional history contains examples of important constitutional changes where there has been no referendum.

In trying to identify the matters on which it is appropriate to hold a referendum, the party commitments at elections are important. We should look back to the referendums of the 1970s and, in particular, to the 1975 referendum on entry to the European Community. That referendum was promised in the Labour manifestos for both the February and October 1974 elections. The Labour party campaigned for the referendum and took it to the people. The people "approved" the manifesto and, subsequently, a referendum was held.

I am suggesting that the hon. Lady has not taken the matter to the public. There has not been a debate. She needs to agitate the issue with the public. She should go out and campaign. She must convince her own party. The right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who leads on constitutional issues for the main Opposition party, said that the idea was fraught with difficulties. If the hon. Lady campaigns, she may ultimately be successful. Her proposal would have to be incorporated in her party manifesto, and her party would have to be successful at an election. That is a long way down the track, I suspect.

To be consistent with the constitutional conventions and with the circumstances in which we have held referendums, and to continue to operate a system of representative and responsible government, as we have known it in this country, the hon. Lady needs to do much more than simply present a Bill.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I hope that I may catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye later. With reference to my hon. Friend's plea to have regard to constitutional conventions, may I say that if we are a modernising party we must disregard some of those conventions? Citing conventions as a reason for not introducing constitutional changes reflects a degree of conservatism. I want a radical approach to the constitution, including a greater use of referendums.

Mr. Cranston

I think that my hon. Friend misunderstands me. I said earlier that at the last election we went to the people with a programme of radical change. We promised, for example, to repatriate the European convention on human rights, and we are in the process of doing that. We promised freedom of information, and we are working on that. We promised devolution in Scotland and Wales, and we are delivering that. It was a programme of radical change, but it was consistent with our conventions because we incorporated it in the manifesto, took it to the people and got their approval.

In some cases we said that it was appropriate that there should be a referendum. We have already had referendums in Scotland and Wales. We said that the single currency issue is important constitutionally and economically, and we said that we should allow the people to have their say.

My argument is not about impeding change. Change must occur in an appropriate way and must be consistent with our constitutional conventions, which allow any party to incorporate a radical programme, to argue that change, and to go to the people on that basis, as we did at the last election. That is not what the hon. Lady has done. She has simply been lucky in the ballot and brought this little Bill into the House. She has not done the hard work—

Mrs. Gorman

I realise that the hon. Gentleman is new to this place. I have probably made more pleas than anyone in the House for referendums to consult people over the past three years, on the Maastricht treaty, on the single currency and in today's Bill. Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether he is in favour of referendums, in which case mine should fit neatly into his Bill, or agin them, in which case he may be called in to see his Chief Whip later?

Mr. Cranston

I fully appreciate what the hon. Lady has campaigned on, but she has not been successful in that campaigning. As long as she is not successful, it is not appropriate for a referendum to be held.

In reply to the hon. Lady's more general question about whether referendums are appropriate, yes, in limited circumstances they are. However, we must be careful about adopting the referendum technique too readily because it could undermine our system of representative and responsible government. I remind the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that the referendum has proved to be a very conservative instrument in many countries. Referendums are sometimes used to hinder change—particularly when moral issues are taken to the people. Therefore, the referendum is not necessarily a progressive instrument.

There has been some comment this morning about the West Lothian question. I do not believe that that is a serious issue. The Government have said that there will be no minimum number of Scottish Members of Parliament when there is a boundary redistribution some time during the Parliament. There has also been some discussion about how an English Parliament might operate. An English Grand Committee concept would impose an intolerable burden on Madam Speaker, who would have to determine whether issues should be decided by that body or by Parliament.

I fully endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) about regionalism. That seems to be the most appropriate step to take at present. We took that issue to the people in our manifesto and we secured their approval. If there are any concerns in England about the implications of devolution in Scotland and Wales—I do not believe that they are broad concerns; my constituents have certainly not raised them with me—I believe that the Government's proposals on regionalism represent the most appropriate way of addressing them.

12.36 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

The speech of the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) was one of the most remarkable in the debate to date. I find it quite extraordinary and unacceptable that a Labour Member of Parliament should say that everyone in the United Kingdom except the English can have their say in a referendum.

I must declare an interest in the debate: I am with Cecil Rhodes when he said that "being an Englishman is the greatest prize in the lottery of life". I am also proud that, through my wife's family, my children have Scottish, Irish and even Cornish blood flowing in their veins.

Some may think that a rather surprising alliance is at work today. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and I do not always see eye to eye on some issues—particularly those relating to the development of the European Union. When she asked me to be a sponsor of the Bill, I thought for a moment that she was calling my bluff. However, it is a great privilege to be associated with the Bill. I greatly regret the necessity for it, as does my hon. Friend. I do not welcome the need that has been created by the Government's tinkering with the constitution, but we must support the Bill in order to give the English people a choice. I shall explain why that is so.

For English Members of Parliament, this could be the single most important debate in this Parliament as it gives us an opportunity to discuss the most important issue facing us in our role as representatives of the English part of the United Kingdom. I have a particular perspective on this issue. I come from Worcestershire, and my constituency is to be sandwiched between the Government's "powerhouse for Wales"—that is the phrase used in the White Paper—and the Birmingham-based regional development agency. I believe that my constituents will pay an exceptionally high price economically for this Government's blundering around in the locker room of constitutional change.

The problem with the Government is that they offer us constitutional change but do not think through the consequences. They do not have an endgame: they have no final objective. That is true of the Government's policies regarding the House of Lords, electoral reform, Europe, the regional development agencies and, above all, devolution for Scotland and Wales. The House must address the central question of where power and accountability lie in this kingdom before it does anything else. That question goes to the heart of our democracy.

The Government do not seem to understand a great deal about this democracy—they certainly do not understand their wonderful economic inheritance or the institutions of this country. In 1876, Walter Bagehot said: The characteristic danger of great nations, like the Romans or the English, which have a long history of continuous creation, is that they may at last fail from not comprehending the great institutions which they have created. It is precisely that failure of comprehension that I fear the Government are demonstrating. I fear also that this country, this kingdom, may fail as a result.

What is it that the people of this kingdom are being offered? There will be a Parliament for Scotland—quite an ambitious and wide-ranging Parliament—with significant powers. There will be an assembly for Wales, with fewer significant powers. There will be a new devolved body for Northern Ireland. I am sure that that will have its merits in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process. In the same context, there will be a council of the isles. I think that some people are calling it IONA—the islands of the north Atlantic, from which England, by definition, will be excluded. I have no objection to that exclusion. I think that the proposal is the right course for the Northern Ireland peace process to pursue.

In all of that, there is nothing for England. Actually, there is worse than nothing; there is the balkanisation of England, the splitting up into its alleged component parts. These are so-called component parts that have no history, culture or tradition. They are regional development agencies and, in due course, regional assemblies.

No real person—I exclude bureaucrats, the CBI and Labour politicians—wants regional development agencies. The exceptions are a few local councillors who see an opportunity for a power base for themselves and some business men who do not understand, or are too frightened to upset this autocratic Government.

The Government's plans for the regions are, in effect, an attack on local democracy. I plead guilty because the Conservative party, over 18 years of government, did not always respect local government as it should have done. However, the RDAs and the assemblies represent a full-frontal attack on the county council and district council within my constituency. They are also an attack on the authority of the House. They will inevitably take power from the House, just as many developments—my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay might be surprised to hear what I am about to say—within the European Union will. The House is being marginalised.

As far as I can recall, since these ideas were first floated by the Labour party when in opposition, only one of my constituents has expressed to me his desire for a regional assembly in the west midlands. I recall that he was a member of Charter 88 and certainly not a supporter of the Conservative party.

There are huge dangers in this regionalism. In representing essentially but not entirely a rural constituency, I would say that there will be rule from the urban centre and the sidelining of rural interests. I see in the plans a sinister agenda for the Labour party to rule the countryside of England from its urban heartlands and to seek to achieve more political domination over the countryside than otherwise would be possible.

We have new bureaucracy and a duplication of economic regeneration activities between the districts, the counties, the RDAs and the Government. Most importantly of all, probably, there is the opportunity for Europe to divide and rule in the regions. I made that point during Wednesday's debate on the Regional Development Agencies Bill and I shall not make it again at length this afternoon. I merely say that it is not necessary to be a Euro-sceptic to be fearful of the outcome.

I am more sympathetic than my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay to the EU but I have my eyes wide open and I know what it is that the EU wants to do. Anything that marginalises this place and gives Brussels a direct link to the regions will inevitably be in its interests in constructing a federal Europe, which, like my hon. Friend, I firmly oppose.

Another danger of regionalism is that there is no public support for it among ordinary people. I am not talking about those who respond to Government consultations. Regions do not exist. As I said in an intervention, they are administrative conveniences. They are not democratic concepts with a cultural tradition. People in my constituency have loyalty to their village or town, to their county and of course to their country.

I oppose regionalisation, but I must offer something to my English constituents. If the devolution Bills are passed in this Parliament, as I think they will be, and there are developments in the Northern Ireland peace process, which seem likely, English resentment will grow. There will be resentment at under-representation in the Kingdom, with no separate voice on so many issues. There will be English resentment at higher spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There will be a growth of English nationalism. I still fear—I do not predict this with 100 per cent. certainty—that the long-term result will be the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Gill

Does my hon. Friend accept that, for the governance of this country and for respect for the law, all the people must acquiesce in the law-making process and in the laws that are made? Are not the circumstances in which the Government have chosen to make laws for the regions of this country, without the acquiesence of the vast majority of the people who live in England, destined to lead to the tensions that he is describing?

Mr. Luff

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In fact he probably understates the position. Popular support and enthusiasm—not just sullen acquiescence—for these institutions are essential if they are to flourish in our democracy.

The problem is that these issues are not understood by the Government—a Government dominated by Scots and Welsh Members. I have no complaint about that. I like Scots and Welsh representation in this place. I welcome it. I would rather have it maintained on its current basis than changed.

The Government are also dominated by northerners. Again, I have no objection to that, as this is the Government whom the people voted for. However, even within those areas, matters are not as clear cut as the Government would have us believe. Highlanders in Scotland take a rather different view from lowlanders. The people of north and south Wales—indeed those on the borders of England—all take a rather different view about the Welsh Assembly. Cumbria has precious little in common with Liverpool or Newcastle, and—coming further south—Cornwall certainly has nothing to do with Bournemouth, into whose regional assembly it will be placed.

In the rest of the country, where English Tory Members of Parliament are still the norm, there is no sense of region at all. None of my constituents thinks of himself for one moment as a west midlander. Many of them work in Birmingham, in the black country. Some were born there. The hon. Member for Dudley, North represents a constituency that was part of Worcestershire, but now, sadly, it is divorced from it through earlier, misguided change. We would like to have Dudley back some day—perhaps we could discuss it after this debate—if only for the beer.

We are deeply suspicious of the west midlands conurbation, and with good reason: the regional executive of the national health service delayed, for more than 30 years, a new hospital for Worcester. The executive is based in Birmingham and is preoccupied with the problems of Birmingham. Worcester has been denied its hospital. That will be the price of regional assemblies and RDAs on issue after issue.

We are proud of being Worcestershire men and women. We are proud of being English, of being British. I write my nationality in hotel registers as British, not English. My house in Worcestershire is in middle England. I have a view across the Malverns, which were the inspiration of Elgar, who wrote, of course, "Land of Hope and Glory". The English civil wars began and ended in Worcestershire. The creator of parliamentary democracy, Simon de Montfort, died in my constituency, at Evesham, 700 years ago, at the battle of Evesham. Bad King John, reluctant signatory to the Magna Carta, lies buried in Worcester cathedral. We are at the heart of English history, and we associate with both our county and our country, and also with our kingdom. We are proud of all of them.

Westminster is about to change. Quite soon, all parts of the kingdom will be able to take decisions that affect only England.

Mr. Mackinlay

Two kingdoms.

Mr. Luff

Indeed. There will effectively be two kingdoms.

Soon we will not be able to influence the same important decisions in other parts of the United Kingdom. They will be able to vote on our business, while we may not vote on theirs. They will expect to have more of their money, while we will have no say on how it is spent. It will not do, and nor will the Government's regional assemblies.

There are two solutions: the first is the subject of the Bill; the second is, perhaps, less radical and more quickly deliverable. We on the Opposition Benches are not imposing an English Parliament on reluctant people. We are asking, "Do you want one?" On the basis of the Welsh referendum result, I would have said that the Welsh do not want their assembly, and would not have proceeded with that legislation. The same result for an English Parliament would tell me that people do not want an English Parliament either, and that we should give up and go home. That would be the result of such a pathetic turnout and ridiculously small majority.

Understandably—and perfectly reasonably—the Bill is silent on the precise functions, responsibilities and even location of the new English Parliament proposed in it. However, before putting the question to the vote, we must be clearer—as, to be fair, the Government were—about the precise shape of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. What would it resemble more: the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly? The question answers itself. Given the size of this country, it would have to be more like the Scottish Parliament, with similar powers and responsibilities. What would Northern Ireland and Wales say about that? What would they say about the over-representation within the kingdom of England, as they would, I think legitimately, see it?

Therefore, I advocate a more radical approach: not the federal Europe which is offered implicitly in regional assemblies but—I use the word "federal" hesitatingly and reluctantly—a true federal United Kingdom. It is not my ideal, it is not what I want—I prefer what we have had for hundreds of years—but I believe that that is the only course along which I can be driven by the logic, or illogic, of what the Government are doing.

Mr. Gill

Does my hon. Friend accept that there might be an argument for this very radical Government in their approach to constitutional affairs to go the whole hog: to abolish the House of Lords entirely, install a British Parliament in the other place and dedicate this Chamber to the English Parliament?

Mr. Luff

That is an interesting idea. I cannot respond off the cuff to such an imaginative, radical and creative idea, but at least it is fresh thinking, and I promise my hon. Friend to give it serious consideration. That is the type of issue that we should be debating, because the constitution of this country will and must change, and it must do so in the best interests of all of us.

However, my suggestion is that we should have an English Parliament, with similar powers to those of the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Let the component parts of the kingdom have equal devolution of decision making. Each country should have a Parliament with exactly the same devolved responsibilities. The kingdom would have a Parliament, too, to deal with those issues that the kingdom Parliament reserves to it—probably along the lines of the Scottish break-up of powers between the Westminster Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, reserving to the kingdom Parliament defence, foreign policy, macro-economic policy and so on.

We could either have separate membership of those two Parliaments, with two Members of Parliament for each constituency, one for the national Parliament and one for the kingdom parliament, or, as I would prefer, one Member of Parliament could represent each constituency in both Parliaments. In the latter case, the members from the component parts of the kingdom would have to bear in mind constantly the interests of the whole kingdom during their term of office, so I would advocate that alternative very strongly.

There may be obstacles that I have not considered, but I believe that that is a stable, long-term solution to the dilemma that the Government have posed so recklessly to our kingdom; a solution that would avoid the jealousies and lunacies of regional assemblies.

We do not have much time—I am talking not about this debate, but about the progress of constitutional change in our country. The ugly ogre of English nationalism, which I detest, will begin to march soon unless it is forestalled. The Government have lit a camp fire of concern in England, which will soon burn into a forest fire unless we address it speedily. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in 1915, Smile at us, pay us, pass us: but do not quite forget. For we are the people of England, that have never spoken yet"— and they will speak soon.

I have something else in mind: an alternative short-term strategy, which may be the stable long-term solution. Provision exists in the Standing Orders of the House for the establishment of a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs which shall consider any matter or matters relating to regional affairs in England which may be referred to it". Standing Order No. 117(2) states:

All members sitting for constituencies in England shall be members of the standing committee, together with not more than five other Members to be nominated by the Committee of Selection. The Committee was established in 1975 by the previous Labour Government and for two years it was used extensively. There were debates on economic affairs in East Anglia, the north-west, the south-east, Yorkshire and Humberside. Griffith and Ryle say in their textbook, "Parliament":

there were sometimes divisions in the committee which, although largely meaningless, could be embarrassing for the government. As any English Member could attend, the task of the whips on either side was not easy. It may be that this was one of the reasons that these debates, although they appear to have been popular with the back-bench members who took part, did not flourish. A debate on plans for the South-East in 1977–78 was the last use of the procedure. If that is the best objection that the Government can offer—I also look at my hon. Friends at this point—I hope that they will think again. England needs a voice and a mechanism is readily available to us. The Committee was popular. More than 60 hon. Members attended that last debate, in July 1978. Several of them are still with us in the House and some recently retired. I spoke to one yesterday and reminded him of his words, and he was relieved to find that he still agreed with himself.

We may need to amend Standing Orders to change parts of the way in which the Committee works, but the principle is sound. Perhaps that is the way forward, but I regret that I am driven to it by a Government who are playing fast and loose with our constitution.

It may be strange for me to end with a quote from a socialist, but George Orwell in "Homage to Catalonia", exactly 60 years ago, said something about English complacency that deserves to be repeated today. He wrote: Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway cuttings smothered in wild flowers … the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs. It is not the bombs that we should fear now—or not quite—but the time bomb of unthought-through constitutional change that threatens great disturbance to this realm of England. I hope that the Bill and this debate do something to wake the English people from that sleep before it is too late. The English people should, at the very least, be given the chance to choose.

12.55 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) about what he called the "ugly ogre of English nationalism". Home Office Ministers should reflect on the phrase used by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who referred to the corrosive sense of injustice. These matters must be handled very gingerly.

On Monday, I spoke for 42 minutes, so it behoves me to be succinct now. For most of the 35 years or more that I have been a Member of the House, I would have dismissed the proposal of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) with something of a guffaw. A Parliament for England: don't be daft! However, given the result of the general election, the events of 11 September and the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill on Tuesday, the unthinkable has become distinctly thinkable. Perhaps a Parliament for England may be an unintended consequence of the legislation for Scotland and Wales.

What is beyond question is that the hon. Member for Billericay has rendered the House of Commons a singular service by using her luck in the ballot to create such a timely opportunity for at least exploring the concept of an English Parliament. This matter deserves to be aired in Committee.

My first question relates to an article that appeared in The Scotsman this morning by the commentator, Mr. lain MacWhirter, a copy of which I gave to the Home Office. Could I have an interim reflection on whether a Kilbrandon-type committee, as he suggests, on the governance of England is a starter?

My second question, of which I have given notice, is: why was no Home Office Minister to be seen on Monday and Tuesday during the two-day discussion on the Scotland Bill? Is it that modern Executives—the previous Government did not behave much differently—have ceased to care the proverbial fig about the House of Commons? This is not a matter of amour propre: it is a question of the health of a parliamentary system in which elected representatives are at least listened to, even if their views are unpalatable.

My third question is: why on earth was the Scotland Bill left entirely to Scottish Office Ministers? Such a measure was devised in the Cabinet Office last time, but this time it was devised entirely in the Scottish Office. What was the Home Office contribution? The Home Office has some serious documents, which were prepared in the first instance by that distinguished permanent secretary Sir Charles Cunningham, who had been at the Scottish Office before he went to the Home Office, and were added to by Philip Allan when he was the distinguished permanent secretary.

The Home Secretary and his Ministers ought to look at the documents. I am not saying that circumstances have not changed; I am merely saying that I think the Home Office understands how impossible it would be to have a subordinate Parliament for part, but only part, of a kingdom that, above all, we wish to remain united.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead)—who has left the Chamber, doubtless for good reasons—gave a Catalonia example. I do not doubt that a prosperous citizen of Barcelona might be enchanted with what has happened in Catalonia, but, having been to Andalucia, I think that things might look rather different in Andalucia and in the rest of Spain. The Catalans are not exactly the flavour of the month, and are thought to have behaved—with all their riches—in a rather selfish manner.

Fourthly, I would like to hear the Home Office view on what has come to be known as the Bury, North question. I have discussed that question with another distinguished former permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Brian Cubbon, who happens to come from Bury. The Bury, North question is this. How can my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor)—my Labour colleague—justify to his constituents in that not over-rich Lancashire town the fact that, for the foreseeable future—if we are to believe the undertakings as to the sanctity of the Barnett formula, undertakings about which I have grave reservations—the Scots will benefit from 24 per cent. more identifiable expenditure per capita than the English?

It stretches the bounds of human nature to think that, for ever and ever—that is what we are talking about—English Members of Parliament will be voting substantially more money for people whose spending they have difficulty in monitoring. That was made clear by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden on Monday. At the same time, those Members will be accepting less for their constituents, in Essex—where my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who will, I hope, speak, has his constituency—and, indeed, all over England.

This cannot last. That is not an opinion, but a fact of life.

My fifth question relates to what the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said on Tuesday, which was: It is not a Scottish but an English time bomb: the people of England will ask why on earth the Scots who have gone off to look after themselves and run their own Parliament should dominate us and take such a keen interest in our affairs in Chippenham."— [Official Report, 13 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 198.] The Scottish Office did not reply to that, but I would be rather interested to learn the Home Office's view.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department represents a constituency in Greater Liverpool. I hope that he will forgive me if I say that it cannot be right that I, as Member of Parliament for Linlithgow—let us be alliterative with our l's and i's—can continue to vote on the most delicate matters relating to Liverpool when my hon. Friend cannot vote on those matters in Linlithgow and, for heaven's sake, I cannot vote on them in Linlithgow. That situation cannot continue. The ability of the Scotland legislation to endure will have to be judged against its openness and fairness to all Members of Parliament in all parts of the United Kingdom. Again, is that accepted by the Home Office?

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said: The point that I make to the House and especially to Ministers is that the proposals are not fair to England, and because they are not fair to England, the settlement will not prove durable … It is a little more bizarre that the hon. Member for Linlithgow will be able to express a view on what happens in Lincolnshire, but will have no say on the domestic policies that affect his constituents."—[Official Report, 12 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 77.] What is the Home Office view of that?

My next question goes back to the speech of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who said: I know that one of the two parties to the love fest is being taken for a ride. I do not believe for one moment that it is the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) is like the cat that swallowed the cream in all this. The hon. Member for New Forest, West continued: What Labour Members have failed to realise about the Bill's nature and its reliance on good will—there is even to be an electoral system maximising the requirement for good will—is that one of the parties to the arrangement is wholly opposed to the Bill as it stands. Again, what is the Home Office view of the reliance of this legislation on good will? Forgive some of us for being somewhat cynical.

On the same day, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said:

The English are quiescent at the moment and, by and large, they are benignly disposed towards the Scottish Parliament. I do not believe that they realise the risk inherent in the scheme in front of the House. England awakes only when it is in disaster—that seems to be the lesson of history. The truth is that we do not have to look very far ahead to suppose that the Prime Minister wins the next election but his majority is formed only on the basis of Scotland."—[Official Report, 13 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 204–10.] There will probably be no problem in this Parliament but, in reflecting on the constitution, we must look ahead to the next Parliament and the Parliament after that. This is an opportunity to ask about Home Office thinking on the matter because, as The Times leader of 5 April 1997 eloquently put it, the consequences

will be felt well south of Hadrian's Wall. I shall refer briefly to an article by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins), a member of the Treasury Select Committee and chairman of the northern group of Labour Members. He says: There are three problems with the 1978 model besides its age. First, the formula is not based on rational assumptions. It is merely a calculation which ensures differential increments in expenditure in the different nations of the UK. It actually reflects decisions made about resource allocation in 1976–77. Second, it is flawed. It is clear from the evidence both now and in the 1970s that the formula was intended to produce convergence between England and Scotland. But in fact it has led to a wider divergence between spending over the past 20 years; though living standards in Scotland have risen relative to England, spending north of the Border is now 23 per cent. higher per head of population than in England. Third, the formula has not enabled equal scrutiny of spending in all parts of the UK. Governments have seen attractions in the formula precisely because it is obscure, historic and not based on the assessment of present needs. The perspective of northern Members of Parliament cannot be put back into some kind of Pandora's box. Again, I ask the Home Office what its response is to comments such as those written eloquently and powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central in the Scottish press.

I promised to be brief. All I say is that the House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Billericay for giving us the opportunity at least to put some of the questions in the context of the English dimension. I hope that she gets an opportunity at least to have her Bill on the anvil of inquiry in a Committee so that these matters can be seriously and quietly looked at.

1.10 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in debates of this nature. He started by asking the fundamental questions that flow from the consequences of the Scotland Bill, questions to which we have so far had absolutely no answers from the Government. As he put those questions specifically to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) today, I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to answer them. I particularly look forward to the answers to the new question about the Kilbrandon commission, but all the issues raised by the Scotland Bill deserve to be treated seriously.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—[Interruption.]

Mr. Mackinlay

She has finally crossed the Floor of the House.

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend's political dexterity has been slightly over-estimated. I am sure that she intends to remain on the Opposition Benches. I congratulate her on securing this debate. The debate that she has led this morning is not about an English backlash, but her high state of arousal on the issue, her enthusiasm and the originality of her speech are a great contribution to the general debate about the constitution, which the Government have so far neglected.

The Government are pursuing an agenda of their own making in pursuit of their own interests at the expense of a proper, holistic view of the British constitution. I shall refer briefly to comments that have been made during the debate, but I wish to make one general qualification about the comments that I intend to make today. This is a debate that raises questions. It is not a debate that will provide us with answers, although I appreciate that some answers have been put before us. However, one thing is absolutely clear. I make this point in response to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). There is clearly an agenda for the reform of the British constitution that goes hand in hand with the programme for the integration of Europe. That was endorsed specifically by the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, when he talked about a Europe of the regions. That is the policy of the Government.

If anything is designed to make it easier for the institutions of the European Union to get a hold on the political agenda within the member states, it is the stripping of national Governments and national Parliaments of their powers, taking some powers up to European level and encouraging others down to regional level. That is consistent with the programme that the Government seem to be pursuing.

The Bill is analogous to the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, which was passed by the House last summer in a great rush, and it is similar in style to the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill, which is in the other place. The problem with the Government's approach to the referendums is that it is they who choose the timing and the issue, who frame the questions and who decide whether there should be one question or two.

We wanted to change the questions in the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill. There is an argument about whether there should be two questions or one question in the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill as it is about two issues: a democratically elected mayor and a democratically elected assembly.

The Government also choose the franchise. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who spoke eloquently and at length, talked about the sacrifices that people have made for this entity—the English entity. It is notable that, although—I use more up-to-date examples than him—the Welsh Guards died on HMS Sir Galahad when they were fighting under the British flag for the Falklands, they would have been denied a vote in the Welsh referendum if they had, by accident, neglected to maintain themselves on the Welsh electoral local government register because they were stationed in London.

It is also notable that the First Battalion of the Royal Scots—which is stationed in Colchester—the finest regiment in the British Army and the successor regiment to the Lovat Scouts, which was cut down by Hitler's machine guns on the D-day beaches, did not get a vote in the Scottish referendum. What a travesty it is that national destinies are being decided when those who would fight and die for their country are denied a say. Therefore, we are not satisfied with the way in which the referendums have been conducted.

The comment of the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) that, somehow, tacking on to a manifesto a commitment to hold a referendum makes it okay for the Government to call their referendums and to dismiss anyone else's claim to hold a referendum is ridiculous. When he knocked on their doors in his constituency during the general election, did his voters say, "I am particularly pleased that you are having a referendum in Wales on a Welsh Assembly and that is why I am going to vote for the Labour party"? That is taking the doctrine of mandate to ridiculous limits.

What we need—this is the only substantive policy commitment that I shall make on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition this morning—are clear rules, which are agreed on an all-party basis and on which there is consensus, on the conduct of referendums. That may mean having a Select Committee examine the issue, a standing commission on referendums, a referendums Bill eventually or, as has been suggested elsewhere, a Speaker's Conference on the conduct of referendums. It is absolutely unacceptable that referendums should be used and abused as an instrument for the political convenience of the Executive, as they have been.

The referendum should be a hurdle, not a weapon in the hands of the Executive. A former Labour Prime Minister, Mr. Attlee, described referendums as a device of demagogues and dictators. I do not agree that a referendum needs to be such a thing, but the Government seem to be proving that adage.

Given that the referendum on whether this country should continue to have the right to issue its own coinage in relation to the single currency may be conducted in the same tack-handed and cavalier fashion in which the Welsh referendum has been conducted—with the Secretary of State for Wales, who has such a vested interest in the result, being the sole arbiter of whether the result was fair—the whole construction of the referendums is exposed as completely unacceptable.

The official Opposition have called for a proper, independent inquiry to decide the question of the malpractices that were evident in the conduct of the counting of the votes in the Welsh referendum. It is worth reminding the House that the majority in the Welsh referendum was the equivalent of only 200 votes per constituency and I challenge any Labour Member to stand up and say that he would not call for a recount if he lost the next election by only 200 votes—of course they all would. We do not call for a recount; we just want someone independent to look into the matter and the Secretary of State cannot be regarded as an innocent bystander in that regard.

The Bill also addresses the English question. There is a squeamishness on the part of the Government to regard the English question as the English question, but we have had the Scottish question and the Welsh question, so it seems perfectly legitimate to discuss the English question. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay is right to say that, whether or not we approve of the questions that were originally asked, devolution in Scotland and Wales throws up anomalies that need to be answered. She is right to say that we should oppose the European view of the regions and she is right to say that we should now try to provide an answer to the West Lothian question.

The Bill provides only one of the answers to the West Lothian question and I shall not spend much time on reiterating all the other solutions. It has been suggested that we should have a federal United Kingdom, but that debate has only just started in the largest part of the United Kingdom. That underlines the Government's irresponsibility in proceeding with massive constitutional reform in the form of devolution to a legislative and tax-raising Parliament in Scotland. There is the question whether we should have an English Parliament and whether that Parliament should be here, in this Chamber, or based elsewhere as a separate institution. We do not dismiss that, but regard it as only one of the options to be considered. In addition, there is the question whether we should have English days.

There are grave disadvantages to all those solutions. The idea that we should purposefully carve up the United Kingdom House of Commons and accentuate the inequalities and differences between different Members of Parliament seems difficult to promote as a Unionist proposition. If we are to have a Parliament of the United Kingdom, we should all sit as equal Members of that Parliament. To give people different powers over different issues, or different rights to sit in different parts of the parliamentary timetable, should be anathema.

That leaves the Northern Ireland solution, seen during the period of the Stormont Parliament. Then, no attempt was made to answer the West Lothian question, but it was addressed in a complementary fashion by reducing the representation here from the part of the United Kingdom that had its own legislative forum. That is not a satisfactory answer. It worked to some extent in respect of the smallest component of the United Kingdom, but the scale of the Scottish problem does not lend itself to that solution. It is one thing to reduce the number of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament from about 20 to 15, as we did then, but it may not be acceptable to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament from 72 to 46 or even fewer, depending on the degree of legislative authority that they end up having in the Scottish Parliament.

Another measure that does not even start to answer the West Lothian question is that sop to the English, the regional assemblies. As has been adequately and extensively explained by my right hon. and hon. Friends, the assemblies will be nothing but administrative talkshops in regions that have no natural boundaries or affinities. To which region would my own county, Essex, belong? Essex extends into the heart of London—in fact, it originally started at the Bow bells, although we have lost that bit, along with the constituency of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Would he and his constituency be in the London region or the south-east region, or would they join Essex in the East Anglian region? What region would Thurrock be in?

Mr. Mackinlay

Thurrock county.

Mr. Jenkin

Thurrock county perhaps. We look forward to the principality of Thurrock or perhaps even the kingdom of Thurrock.

The illogicality and artificiality of the proposed solution make it look unworkable. The only reason that it is on the agenda is that the Government are embarrassed by their failure to answer the West Lothian question. That was the only reason for the referendum in Wales; there was no crying demand for administrative or legislative devolution for Wales, which is why only one in four of the Welsh population voted for it. The problem arises as a result of the Scottish context.

The Government have abandoned the agenda for regional assemblies because they are so embarrassed by the result of the Welsh referendum. The Secretary of State for Wales hung on to his job by the skin of his teeth, although his job now hangs in the balance again. We are left with the programme of regional development authorities. It represents an enormous increase in ministerial patronage, the potential erosion of local authorities' powers and a complete lack of accountability to the people of those regions who will be suffering under the discretionary powers. It looks set to dismiss the interests of the countryside in favour of urban interests without any sense of direction about where the Government's reform may be going.

That underlines the Government's piecemeal approach to the reform of the constitution. It is all very well to say that the British constitution has always been subject to irrationality, accident and quirks; it is quite another thing to go about reforming the British constitution with that as the expressed policy of Her Majesty's Government.

There is an obligation on those of us in this place who have ultimate authority in our constitution to ensure that we are rational. By comparison, the Government are opening a can of worms. It was a Government Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who originally coined the phrase and said that we were looking at the balkanisation of Britain. That is exactly what is occurring.

Germany is not a sensible model for us to follow because we are not a group of disparate states being drawn into some sort of federal unit. Spain is an instructive model because it is a unitary state that has chosen to devolve. I shall follow the example of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who quoted himself at length, then took care to ensure that the quotation was properly attributed. The Spanish model is an unstable one; as a model for devolution it has hardly been going for more than 20 years. The Spanish Catalans, the Spanish Basques and other Spanish regions are being set against each other's throats as they compete for differing levels of jurisdiction from widely different perspectives. If Andalucia is a poor region, how can it compete with rich regions?

We are seeing the same in Italy. The Lombard league is, potentially, a deeply destructive force in Italian politics; it is about getting rid of Sicily and the problems of the south and enjoying being in the golden triangle of central western Europe. That is hardly an argument that our Government want to extend to the south-east of England.

We see the same demons being released in the British constitution, without any real understanding, in the Government's approach to the House of Lords. That approach is a vendetta against the hereditary principle without a rational plan about where the reforms of the House are leading. The same cavalier attitude to consensus has been demonstrated in the Government-appointed quango to consider which electoral system should be used to elect this House. Where is the new consensus, where is the reaching across in the new politics which the Government so herald while they luxuriate in the power of their enormous majority?

The constitution should not be a plaything for the majority of Members of this House. What is most dangerous about the Government's programme is the fact that they misunderstand the real nature of political power. They think that it can be picked up and given to somebody else and seem not to appreciate that power flows as a result of personalities, economic circumstances, international influences and, most of all, the effects of decisions that are taken. They are fond of pointing out how unpopular the Conservatives became in Scotland. That may have something to do with the devolution agenda now being pursued in Scotland, which demonstrates that the nature of the debate about the constitution is bound up with the daily political process of domestic issues, which itself drives the debate about politics. It is a complete misunderstanding of the Government's programme to regard it as selfless and dispassionate. The Government are about gerrymandering the British constitution to suit the interests of their party in the regions, in Scotland and in Wales.

We need a constructive debate on how to reform the constitution, which must respect four basic principles. First, it must respect the sovereignty of Parliament. Every constitution has a sovereign body. One need not dismiss the sovereignty of the people to believe in the sovereignty of Parliament. The sovereignty of the American people is vested in the American constitution; the sovereignty of the British people is vested in this Parliament. We are the supreme constitutional authority and what we do has the authority of the people. It is irresponsible to suggest that that sovereignty should be dissipated or dispersed. It is one thing to want to dismantle the United Kingdom on a rational basis, but quite another to go about it by accident, which is what the Government's programme seems to be about.

The second basic principle is that we should preserve the Union of the United Kingdom. That is the Government's declared policy, but they are looking after their charge with singular irresponsibility. By joining up with forces like the Welsh and Scottish nationalists, they are playing with fire. Thirdly, we should strengthen accountability wherever possible. Fourthly, we must work by consensus. If the Government were to respect those four principles, we should make much more progress on a cross-party basis.

According to the logic of the Government's position, the Bill should get the Government's support. If they believe that it is justifiable to hold a referendum in Scotland and Wales, why not hold one in England? However, while the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can contemplate not being the Prime Minister of Scotland or Wales, he cannot contemplate not being the Prime Minister of England.

We welcome this debate, but we cannot advise the House to support the Bill. We are not against change, but we are against change without consensus and debate. The Government are gerrymandering the constitution for their advantage. Their motive is to increase the power of the Executive at the expense of Parliament. Their declared agenda is a Europe of the regions, and the traditional guarantor of liberty—the sovereignty of Parliament—is under threat. As the new constitutional landscape emerges, it will be for the Conservative party to consider how to respond rationally. The Government's constitutional programme will be judged by its results. The Government will tend to win the referendums that they choose to hold, but whether the Government are responsible to lead the people in those directions remains to be seen.

1.33 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Although the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) has often given me a lot of earache, I have a high regard for her. I agree with many hon. Members that she has done the House a commendable service by stimulating this debate via her Bill this morning. I hope that she will understand that I was not here earlier because I was in the county of Essex, protecting and promoting not only my interests, but hers and those of her constituents on a highway matter.

I am pleased to be here and I hope that, if nothing else, I shall bring uniqueness to the debate, because I disagree with everyone. When I hear people trying to argue a party's position on the basis of constitutional conventions, a sense of deep conservatism comes over me—a conservatism that is endemic in the two principal parties. I regret that very much. I am a radical and I have always wanted to see the Labour party as challenging, altering and frustrating the humbug and inertia that is the hallmark of much of our British constitution. When I hear people referring to Walter Bagehot, I am reminded of John Cleese's parrot. He is dead—he has been dead a long time. He is a stiff. It is time to start thinking more boldly than making references to a Victorian academic on the British constitution.

I want to address the two principal themes of today's debate, although we have trespassed into other areas where there is a need for constitutional reform. I should like to have a longer debate on them, and I might refer to some of them in passing.

First, I wish to comment on referendums. On the few occasions when a referendum has been used in the United Kingdom, it has largely been as a result of political expediency—not because it was a virtue in itself. That is wrong. We need a major Act—comparable with the Statute of Westminster or a Bill of Rights—which says that there are issues that are "constitutional" and should be dealt with by means of a referendum.

People ask for referendums on capital punishment or fox hunting, but those matters are not constitutional. There are some issues—such as our electoral system, the shape and nature of Parliament, the number of Chambers and the role of the Executive—which are constitutional issues and should be the subject of referendums. I should like to see ground rules set down for when referendums are triggered, rather than their being advanced on an ad hoc basis of political expediency, which is the track record of the few referendums that we have had in this country. In that sense, the Bill is inappropriate.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman, as I always do, with considerable sympathy as well as attention. I strongly agree with his comments about referendums and about having established procedures for them. Does he agree that when one has referendums on constitutional issues, there should be a threshold of more than the mere achievement of 51 per cent. of the votes cast to carry those major constitutional changes into effect?

Mr. Mackinlay

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that a majority of one is enough. If we had proper ground rules, people, parties or organisations could not realistically shout, "Foul." That underlines the point that there should be proper constitutional legislation providing for referendums.

I spoke about referendums in my maiden speech and have done so on a number of other occasions. On one occasion, there was a Supply day debate proposed by the Liberal Democrats—sadly, no Liberal Democrat Members are here—on a referendum on the European Union. I am both a European enthusiast and pro-devolution, but funnily enough, I am in favour of referendums. I remember speaking along those lines. The then Chief Whip called me and asked, "Are you going to vote for this nonsense?" I was surprised—it was a one-line Whip, and the House was pretty empty. I could not understand his objection to canvassing the idea of referendums on major issues. I remember him saying, "If you vote for the motion, there will be no promotion for you." However, I was able to say to him, "Sorry, mate. I am in the happy but unusual position of not wanting to be a Minister." I went ahead and voted for the motion.

I tell that story both to show how this place is largely run by the Executive, and to emphasise that we need such canvassing of ideas. My argument was that if we had a referendum, I as a pro-European could go out and argue for Europe. The European debate has been one-sided, with some Opposition Members legitimately arguing their anti-European case, but others have not comparably gone out to argue the opposite case. If there was a referendum, we could have a true debate.

I move on to the subject of devolution and the idea of the English Parliament. I have been for devolution—nay, for the federalisation of the United Kingdom—long before such ideas were fashionable in the Labour party. I am a disciple of the late John P. Mackintosh, who was the Member of Parliament for Berwick and East Lothian, and whose book, "The Devolution of Power", I commend. It is much more relevant than Walter dead Bagehot. John P. Mackintosh was a fine Member of Parliament and an enthusiastic advocate for devolution.

For the sake of balance, I also enjoyed and valued the book written by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) from the other perspective in 1976, "Devolution: End of Britain?" Although my hon. Friend is broadly opposed to devolution and I advocate it, I commend his book because he illustrates how devolution became a policy of the Labour party not because it was considered a wonderful idea, but partly by political accident and partly as a matter of expediency; rather than as a matter of good governance, which John P. Mackintosh had argued for in his book.

The United Kingdom is heavily populated and highly centralised. There are 22 million people living in the south-east of England. There is too great a gravitational pull to that region in terms of resources and influence. There should be more local decision making—true subsidiarity.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will recall how both Conservative and Labour Members in the previous Parliament had to stay late into the night to vote on the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill. No doubt that was an important Bill, but the good people of Grays, Thurrock and Tilbury did not lie awake at night worrying about it. There were two or three-line Whips for both parties. It would be much better if such decisions were taken by the good people of Wales. Similarly, it would not be a prudent use of the time of hon. Members from places such as Caithness and Sutherland to vote on legislation relating to London taxis.

We are trying to do too much in this place. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and others referred to the Federal Republic of Germany. They mentioned it in the context of what they consider to be a "takeover by Europe", which is a ludicrous proposition. We should study the federal republic. The Bundestag is primarily occupied with defence, foreign affairs, macro and social economic policy. How sensible. On matters that are domestic issues for the people of Bavaria or Hamburg, decisions are taken by legislatures that have the time and the resources, the skills and the enthusiasm to deal with such decisions at a local level.

One of the myths about this place is that we are a good law-making body. We are not. Regardless of whether we are for or against Bills in principle, the statute product is often seriously deficient, partly because of the adversarial, gladiatorial system of the political parties, and also because we try to do too much in this place. It would be much better if some decisions were taken at a more local level.

I believe that federalism, or the handing down of decisions to more local Parliaments, is the hallmark of modern government and radicalism. It is not just large countries that are moving inexorably to federalism because they recognise the need for efficient decision making and subsidiarity. Reference has been made this morning to Germany. Spain, which is not dissimilar to the United Kingdom, has great local and regional variations, separate histories, cultures and, historically, separate kingdoms, and language differences. Spain has recognised that devolution strengthens rather than jeopardises its union.

My only reservation about the Government's proposals—upon which my right hon. and hon. Friends might reflect prudently—is this. Having decided to devolve, the Spanish shed their powers gradually over about a decade to the various constituent assemblies and Parliaments. They did not adopt the big bang approach. I support the relevant legislation that is before the House, but I am concerned that there will be a vesting day for the Scottish Parliament Executive some two or three years from now, when all powers will be devolved instantly. That is perhaps not the best way to proceed. It might have been better to put the legislation on the statute book and then gradually shed powers over a decade. That process would also minimise what I, as a pro-devolutionist, recognise as a deficiency in the Government's programme: namely, the West Lothian question. It is not only the opponents of devolution who recognise the legitimacy of that question.

My view—I hope, and believe, that I am supporting a radical Government—is that the current proposals are only the first step in modernising our constitution. If so, the lack of constitutional symmetry implicit in the West Lothian question may be sustained for a while. The lack of constitutional symmetry will have legitimacy so long as it is seen as not enduring for ever. If it is clear that we shall move from a Parliament in Scotland to Parliaments in other parts of the United Kingdom—I deliberately use the term "Parliaments", which describes law-making bodies, rather than opaque "assemblies"—we can sustain the West Lothian question. However, the lack of constitutional symmetry that is thrown up by the well-rehearsed West Lothian question is something that we ignore at our peril and that of the United Kingdom.

I do not agree with Conservative Members' thesis that devolution to Scotland is immediately unacceptable, perverse and so on. However, that may become true if nothing else happens. Therefore, I seek to persuade my hon. Friends to have the courage to be really radical in terms of constitutional reform and say that, in addition to Scotland and Wales, we intend to devolve power, not to vague, opaque assemblies, but to law-making bodies in the regions or to an English Parliament. I prefer the regional option, but I would not burst into tears if an English Parliament were established. I have said already that I think that this place should concentrate on foreign affairs and defence matters and macro-economic and social policy. Other decisions should be taken further down the governmental process.

An English Parliament would be rather large. We would still face the problem caused by the fact that there are 22 million people in the south-east of England. Such dominance is unhealthy in a democracy. I believe that there should be other centres of lobbying, enthusiasm and innovation in this country. We need proactive assemblies and executives in other parts of the United Kingdom that will fight their corner.

If we were really in the business of reforming the constitution, we could perhaps create an upper house such as the Bundesrat or a senate, which reflected and gave parity to regions of the United Kingdom that are not wealthy or densely populated. They would be on equal footing with the 22 million people who live in the south-east of England and the 8 million people who live in the Greater London area.

We must not view this programme of reform in isolation—it must be part of a wider package. We must ensure that all corners of the United Kingdom have the capacity to influence and shape the decisions that affect the quality of life of all people.

I enthusiastically support the programme of devolution to Scotland as a devolutionist and not as a matter of political expediency. I support also the decision to have an assembly in Wales. However, I think that one of the reasons for the low turnout in the Welsh referendum was that the people of Wales were not being offered sufficient powers.

If we produce new arrangements for Scotland and Wales, we cannot stop there. If we did, we would then begin to imperil the Union, a Union that I whole-heartedly support. In my view, the Union will be buttressed and sustained if we introduce regional Parliaments with bold and innovative powers, and reform our constitution elsewhere.

As I have said, I am proud to be a member of the Labour party. I want my party to be radical, but I must make the historic observation that some of the constitutional reforms of this century—I regret this—have not been introduced by the Labour party.

We failed to tackle the other place, for instance. The introduction of life peers, and renouncing peerages—albeit under pressure from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who at the time represented Bristol, South-West—came under Conservative Governments. It was they who made it possible to renounce peerages.

It was under Lord St. John of Fawsley that the important Select Committee system was introduced. That was a major and radical constitutional innovation. I say that not by way of complaint but to urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, and through them my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to be bold. I say, "Make a name for yourselves. Do not just talk about modernisation, but act on it." In my view, that means a root-and-branch, fundamental review of the British constitution. Let us do it proudly and resolutely and not by stealth.

1.52 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I shall start where the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) left off. The hon. Gentleman talked about the failure of the Labour party to be radical on constitutional reform throughout history. He showed an admirable grasp and understanding of such matters.

I could go further. The vast majority of social and welfare reforms introduced in this country over the past century were under Conservative Governments, not under the old Liberal party. We must remember, for example, that it was the old Liberal party that wanted to keep boys up chimneys. It opposed every measure of welfare and social reform that was introduced during the 19th century. So the Conservative party has a proud record not only in its pragmatic treatment of the constitution but in terms of its treatment of all the people under the heading of social and welfare reform.

Can the hon. Member for Thurrock draw some comfort from the current Government and Prime Minister? In my judgment and from my perspective, although perhaps not from his, we have the worst possible combination in our Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman is socially reactionary. He has no feel, sensitivity or empathy for the poor or the disadvantaged, but he is a constitutional radical because equally he has no feel, sensitivity or empathy for our heritage, traditions and history. For me, that is the worst possible combination. It is the diametric opposite of good conservatism.

We have heard a great deal during this debate about the paucity of the Government's policy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) described their failure as a failure to grasp the holistic issue of constitutional reform. Perhaps that was best exposed, curiously enough, by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I am an open, fair-minded and decent chap, and the House will understand that, as such, I regard all Liberal Democrats with a certain distaste. Their policies and ideas, as I think all reasonable, fair-minded and open people will acknowledge, are generally appalling. The hon. Gentleman, however, spoke persuasively about four particular matters in relation to the Government's policy on the constitution.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned, first, the incoherence of the Government's policy. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex described as their lack of an holistic approach. Their policy is incoherent and inconsistent. They display an inability to grasp the matter as a whole and to take it seriously conceptually. The hon. Member for Thurrock made the same criticism, although from a slightly different perspective. There is an incoherence about the Government's position on the constitution.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey talked about the bogus comparison between regional governments and the Parliament in Scotland and assembly in Wales—the idea that these were directly comparable. No political scientist or serious student would suggest that a regional assembly in the east midlands is the equivalent of a Scottish Parliament. That is not merely a sop to the English, but an insult to the Welsh and the Scots, because by implication what that really says is that their Parliaments are the equivalent of a regional assembly. One cannot have it both ways, so he exposed yet another hole in the Government's approach.

The third issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was the over-representation of Scots and the Welsh—Celts and Picts, as I do not want to be prejudiced—in this place. I shall not dwell on that, as it has been well rehearsed.

The fourth issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—this was refreshing, coming from a Liberal Democrat—was what he described as sensible, moderate nationalism as a vehicle for expressing national concerns. I suggest that national identity is far more than a mere vehicle for expressing national concerns and needs. National identity gives people a sense of place, of belonging, a sense of purpose, which is even more important to people who otherwise would not, perhaps, be winners, or have less to celebrate in their lives, than it is to those who can celebrate so much because they are at the apex of their particular calling, pursuit, or profession. We enliven our citizens, our fellow countrymen, by the common sense of identity. We enliven them when we share more than that which divides us. We sacrifice that sense of common identity at our peril. The result could well be social disintegration, and certainly unhappiness and disaffection across our nation.

We have had the whole panoply of fashionable socialist prejudices this morning. We had European supranationalism, proportional representation and regional government. We even had criticism of adversarial politics. I do not have time to deal with all of them, any more than I have time to deal with all the historical figures who were mentioned—Bagehot, Chesterton, Mackintosh, even Simon de Montfort—except to say that the thing that characterises all those figures, as the hon. Member for Thurrock revealed, is that they are all dead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) suggested that Simon de Montfort was the founder of the modern Parliament. Some historians would suggest that the English Parliament dates back to Saxon times. The 100 Saxons who gathered around the Elloe stone, in my constituency, long before Simon de Montfort died in mid-Worcestershire, had in their hearts—in their soul, one might say—a passion to gather together to make decisions about affairs that affected their particular part of the country. That sense of the relationship between the common man and the exercise of political power lies at the very heart of political legitimacy, which I shall now deal with specifically.

It seems to me that political legitimacy differentiates regional government and national Parliaments. In the matter of legitimacy, one must consider the issue of consent. Consent relies on an organisation, an institution, enjoying popular acclaim, comprehension, understanding, appreciation and regard. Earlier, someone added enthusiasm. I question whether regional authorities would enjoy any of those things. Would they enjoy acclaim, understanding and enthusiastic support? If they did not, they would not have consent and would not deliver politically legitimate government.

I simply refer hon. Members to my own area. In Lincolnshire, people would presumably elect members to a regional assembly in the east midlands. As I said in an earlier intervention, most people in Lincolnshire do not even acknowledge that they live in the east midlands: they regard themselves as part of eastern Britain, yet their representatives would be placed in an assembly alongside Derby, Leicester and Nottingham. I find it impossible to believe or comprehend that Labour Members think that the people in Lincolnshire would give such an institution their support, and that it would command their affection and enthusiastic consent.

Let us test other institutions on a similar basis, and ask how the alternative constitutional models measure up to the test of political legitimacy. This Parliament, rooted as it is in history, well understood by the people, respected and regarded through years of evolutionary political development, enjoys a high level of legitimacy by comparison with the proposed assemblies.

How does the European Parliament score on that test of legitimacy? Very low indeed, I suggest. Most people know little about it and care less. Most people do not understand how the Parliament or any of the institutions of Europe operate, and definitely would not wish power to be transferred there. Therefore the vision of a Europe of regions, with regional assemblies and a European Parliament, neither of which enjoys the affection, support or even understanding of the vast majority of the British electorate, is for me truly Orwellian. It is an Orwellian nightmare of power removed further and further from the British people, who would not only fail to understand what had been done to them but have limited opportunity to change what was happening as they became increasingly disfranchised.

The debate has not widely covered the eventual implications that the Government's model of the constitution has for other institutions that currently form part of our democracy—local authorities, including county councils, district councils, even parishes. It is rarely said that the model which the Government are pursuing—the supranational model with regional assemblies—would, by definition, result in a dilution of the power of ancient local authorities, of cities that have just regained their unitary status—their sovereignty—of county councils, rooted in history, and of parishes.

The transfer of authority from local government to the regional assemblies would be inevitable, but no one is coming clean about it. No one is honestly saying to local authorities, "You will be the losers when regional government is set up because power will have to be distributed both downwards from the national Parliament and upwards from the existing institutions of local government." Let us have honesty about the repercussions for local government if we have the model that the Government anticipate.

I became a sponsor of the Bill for two reasons. First, I believed that this matter should be aired. As many hon. Members have said, my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) did the House a service by placing this debate on the agenda of this place and on the public agenda. We need a wider public debate about distribution of power, the exercise of power, and the political legitimacy of Parliament and the proposed alternatives.

Secondly, although I have no natural enthusiasm for the principle of an English Parliament, I believe that such a Parliament becomes inevitable and a necessity when Parliaments are established in Wales and Scotland. Many of us would prefer a model based around the status quo: a United Kingdom Parliament, although I do not say that we should set this in stone, or freeze it in aspic. Of course the political system must evolve and change, as it has throughout history, but, forced by Government policy to look at this imbalance in terms of representation, we are obliged seriously to consider an English Parliament, which is why I shall support the Bill.

2.3 pm

Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on this Bill, in the week of the Second Reading of the Regional Development Agencies Bill. I remind the House that the Government have introduced a comprehensive range of constitutional reforms to modernise the political system. That was in our manifesto, which was put to the British people and received overwhelming support. It included proposals for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, which were backed in the referendums, and an elected mayor and strategic authority for London. Most important for my constituents, it proposed greater accountability for the English regions.

Devolution to the regions is being met with great enthusiasm in Warrington, which is geographically at the centre of the north-west, and its industry and business make a significant contribution to regional development. We are looking forward to developing partnerships for the growth and regeneration of our local communities.

I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I am new to the House, and it has been pointed out to me that in our debates "our" means the House; but, as a representative of Warrington, to me it means the people whom I have been elected to represent.

There is private sector support in my area for regional development; small businesses, in particular, urgently seek a framework. We have developed a dialogue with business, which is a recognition of the fact that the Government's proposals are being accepted. Warrington chamber of commerce has told me this week that it actively supports and welcomes the Regional Development Agencies Bill. It believes that it will put us on a level playing field with Scotland and Wales. It wants to see devolution working in the north-west as soon as possible.

Mr. Swayne

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Southworth

Not now, I am afraid.

Partnership with national Government and opportunities for strategic co-operation are very important to my local community. We want to move away from the centralism and unhelpful competition that was favoured by the Conservative Government, and which has disadvantaged the north-west.

The chairman of Warrington 2000, which is a private-public sector partnership working to promote the competitiveness of our local economy, has said that the principle of decentralisation is extremely welcome as a starting point for development, and will allow strategic partnerships to grow.

The opportunities that a regional structure will give to create a regional network and to build on successful partnerships with national Government will help our region to achieve economic and industrial success. In Warrington, we recognise that we cannot achieve economic success and social cohesion alone: we must work in partnership.

I shall refer briefly to a success story that shows the demand from local businesses for, and the effectiveness of, regional economic growth. Warrington has a Business Connections exhibition, which was created due to a demand from local business. It has grown from a small tent on Victoria park to an international exhibition that markets businesses in the north-west, creates opportunities for inward investment in the region and provides regional business with access to growing international markets.

On 28 and 29 April, there will be 500 stands at this year's Business Connections exhibition, with an expected 5,000 visitors over those two days. The international dimension involves business development agencies, companies and groups from 14 countries and 20 American states. It is an effective marketing tool, and is a way of developing contacts with eastern Europe, European Union countries and the rest of the world. It provides an opportunity for businesses in the region to grow and to develop a competitive local economy, which will bring social cohesion.

That is a Warrington initiative, but it shows the regional demand. The effectiveness of Warrington is due to its central position in the north-west, its transport networks and our experience of developing international marketplaces. The exhibition shows our effectiveness because, although 36 per cent. of the participants are from Warrington businesses, 8 per cent. are from Lancashire, 10 per cent. from Greater Manchester, 15 per cent. from Merseyside and 13 per cent. from Cheshire.

It is not merely because Warrington is ideally situated in the north-west that it will grow and prosper under a regional development agency, and will play a key part in the economic regeneration of the north-west to benefit the people, but because in Warrington we live in the real world, where the private and public sectors work strategically together to develop inward investment, training and support for business, transport networks and international markets. Regional devolution, the partnership with national Government that the present Government have made possible and strong relationships with Europe are the cornerstone of the north-west's success. We live in the real world, not in the cloud cuckoo land supported by this Bill.

In my constituency and my region, business and the community are working together to reverse the social and regional economic decline. We are certainly not looking for the petty distractions and frivolity that this Bill represents.

2.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

This has been an interesting debate. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—who, I am sure, will re-emerge at some stage during my brief speech—has done us a service by at least allowing us to debate some of the issues and by demonstrating that the case for a referendum on an English Parliament has not been proved.

The hon. Lady opened her speech with a reference to one of the most topical stories of the day—the fate of the two Tamworth pigs.

Mr. Gerald Howarth


Mr. Howarth

Boars, indeed. The hon. Gentleman would know a great deal about that.

The pigs are Tamworths, and it will not have escaped hon. Members that the modern Conservative party was founded on the Tamworth manifesto, published in The Times on 18 December 1834 in a letter from Robert Peel. I am not trying to be discourteous to Conservative Members or their party, but I see a similarity between the fate of the two boars and the state of the modern Conservative party.

I understand that one of the pigs—known as Butch—was captured last night and is being held by the Daily Mail. The second is still at large, but is being chased by an inspector from the RSPCA with a gun, with which he hopes to quieten it. Hon. Members can choose which fate to specify, but it strikes me that some of them face the fate that I have described.

The debate should be seen in the context of the Government's constitutional reform package. Let me say immediately that we are deeply committed to the democratic renewal of the country. Much went wrong under the last Government but, above all, the failure of confidence in our democratic institutions was a major contribution to the defeat suffered by the Conservative party in May.

I think it worth while to give some indication of our constitutional reform programme and of how we intend to achieve our aims. Several Opposition Members have misrepresented our package. Let me tell them that it is not piecemeal reform. This is not a package that we have plucked out of the air because it sounds nice; it is a genuine response to the British people's concerns about how our constitutional arrangements have worked and, in some ways have been perverted, over the past 20 years or so.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. George Howarth

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. We share a name, but little else.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to my namesake the Minister. He may rest assured that there will be no need for the RSPCA to use a tranquillising dart to deal with him—his hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), perhaps.

The Minister has been kind enough to give way to me. After that mild insult, may I ask him a question? He says that there is great concern in the country about the way in which the Conservatives managed our constitutional arrangements. Will he tell us precisely where in England there is a demand for any new form of democratically controlled government? If there is such a demand, why is he not providing it, rather than setting up a huge quango called a regional development agency?

Mr. George Howarth

No discourtesy was intended; it was a throwaway remark. There is considerable demand for different constitutional arrangements for the government of London. That was still part of England the last time I looked. The hon. Gentleman heard my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) talk of the need for a focus through which the economic regeneration of our region, the north-west, can be taken forward. I shall discuss how we see that process working if I have time. There is a demand for strategic direction in the regions. Conservative Members have had difficulty grasping that.

On the arrangements for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, many speeches by Conservative Members were predicated on the mistaken assumption that through those institutions we were taking the first faltering steps on the road to a federal Britain. People who have read Hansard will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made it clear earlier this week that devolution is not the same as establishing a federal system of government. It is a process by which the House can send some powers to the Scottish people through a body elected by them. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is on the edge of his seat and looks as if he wants to intervene.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I was debating whether to intervene. I am following the logic of the Minister's argument, which seems to be that the idea of devolving powers downwards from Westminster is to give more democracy to the people, yet the Government are on the verge of declaring for economic and monetary union, which would give massive powers up to Brussels, away from the people. Which do the Government want: to take power down to the people from Westminster or to take power up away from Westminster? The only consistency in their position is that they want to destroy the powers of the Westminster Parliament.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman should follow our debates more closely. I do not intend to go through the whole debate on Scotland or Europe but I shall make two points. It is sensible, particularly where the demand exists—in Scotland and Wales, by different majorities, the people have voted for it—to devolve some powers to a directly elected body. He has accepted the result, though he may not be happy with it. On whether we go into the first wave of a single currency, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made the position clear. It will depend on whether at the time we consider it to be in the best interests of the British economy and British businesses. We are combining our concern about our national interest with the potential to pool if conditions are right. That is a proper way to deal with the situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised seven detailed questions that he felt it would be proper for me, as a Home Office spokesman, to answer. I want to reply with two general principles and, if he is happy with this, write to him on the detailed points—not because I cannot answer them but because of the lack of time. If I took all the time available, I could not answer his seven questions.

Mr. Dalyell

indicated assent.

Mr. Jenkin

Can I have a copy?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to receive a copy.

The two general principles specifically concern the Home Office. First, on there being no Home Office Minister here when the Scotland Bill was debated, no discourtesy to the House was intended, nor did we feel that we were being excluded from the deliberations. The Home Office, the relevant departments in the Home Office, the Home Secretary and Ministers were consulted in detail on the arrangements for the referendum and on the arrangements for the Bill, so our view has been fed into the considerations of the Secretary of State for Scotland. He has taken our concerns and worked with them and we have arrived at a conclusion with which we are both happy. There is no divergence of view between the Home Office and the Scottish Office and the respective Ministers in both Departments. Where technical concerns have been expressed, mostly—in fact, entirely—they have been reconciled in the final draft of the Bill.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Howarth

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but then I must make some progress.

Mr. Forth

The Minister has been very generous. He has identified who speaks for Scotland in this case and more generally, and who speaks for Wales, which I think we already know. Who speaks for England and the people of England in the Government?

Mr. Howarth

The question, in the way that the right hon. Gentleman poses it, does not arise. The Government as a whole speak for England.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Howarth

Well, let me explain what I mean. Is it not true, for example, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and Ministers in that Department are responsible for those two issues as they affect the people of my constituency, the right hon. Gentleman's constituency and all English constituencies? That is the case. The Prime Minister speaks for the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Ministers who are responsible for Departments that provide services in England that are provided by the Scottish Office in Scotland and the Welsh Office in Wales speak for England on those subjects. The right hon. Gentleman's question is not as difficult as he thought. The answer is fairly obvious and I hope that I have given him some satisfaction.

The hon. Member for Billericay, who is now back in the Chamber, said that we received only 100 to 120 responses to the consultation document on a Greater London authority. She may have intended to say 1,000. I want to correct that point. In fact, we have received 1,280 responses, which includes 705 from individuals and 576 from organisations representing tens of thousands of Londoners. It is possible that many more people are represented by those responses than the actual number received. I am sure that when the consultation period is over the results will be published and will make interesting reading.

I move on to the Government's programme. The response to the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Billericay is precisely the Government's constitutional programme. As has been discussed at great length, we have introduced proposals which will move towards the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. I emphasise again that we are talking about devolution—some important powers in respect of the Scottish people will be passed along to the Scottish Parliament, which will make decisions. The important thing about that is that the decision to do so was taken in a referendum of the Scottish people, which is what we promised.

One of the issues raised by several expatriate Scots who now represent English constituencies is the position of Scots who are not living in Scotland. It is a strange constitutional idea that someone who does not live in an area but happens to have been born there should be consulted about proposals for it.

Mr. Jenkin

What about overseas voters?

Mr. Howarth

That is a case in point. It is a separate issue. As a result of action taken by the previous Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, people who live abroad are added on to an electoral register in constituencies in which they have an influence. The justification for adding them to the register is that they might be temporarily resident abroad and qualified to vote in this country in the election of a Government of the United Kingdom as a whole. The difference with these proposals is that they affect Scotland or they affect Wales, so it is logical that people who are currently resident in Scotland or in Wales should have been consulted about them.

Our second important constitutional proposal is to give devolution to the people of Wales in the form of a Welsh Assembly. Having lived in Wales for three years and worked in a Wales-wide organisation while I was there, I have slightly more knowledge of Wales than of Scotland. Whatever we say about Wales, we must accept two important factors about it. The first is that there is a distinctly Welsh nationality, although it may vary from north to south. The accents vary and some aspects even of the Welsh language differ between the north and south, but there is such a place as the Principality of Wales. That is an incontrovertible fact that no Conservative Member would oppose.

The second factor is that a series of institutions—for example, the Welsh Development Agency—and quangos in Wales spend money, are heavily involved in aspects of policy, the implementation of policy and the running of services in Wales, and are distinctly Welsh in character. There is then the Welsh Office itself. All those should be brought under the democratic control of the people of Wales. That is what the Bill did.

We also held a referendum. I accept that there was a very small majority, but the will of the people of Wales was that they should have their Welsh Assembly and that is what they will have.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

It seems to be central to the Minister's argument that English interests are properly represented in Cabinet and in the Government. If he considers the fact that, in Scotland, almost all items of domestic expenditure—per capita expenditure, for example—are almost twice, or much greater than, that in England, does he accept that those interests have been inadequately represented? Is that not an important aspect of the question?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the Barnett formula. Towards the end of last year, there was an interesting Treasury Select Committee inquiry into precisely that point. It called in particular for the needs assessment to be updated. We have made it clear that any substantial revision of the arrangements would be preceded by an in-depth study of relative spending requirements and that such an exercise would be the subject of proper consultation between the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly after devolution. The hon. Gentleman raises a problem that we are aware of, but until we work out the relative needs of England, Scotland and Wales and until there is a proper discussion between the respective bodies, it is impossible to say what is right and what is wrong. A mechanism has already been announced to deal with the matter, but it cannot come into operation until all those arrangements are properly in place.

The third important aspect of our constitutional arrangements is the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into UK law. As one of my hon. Friends has said, we are bringing those rights back to the British people. That was an important commitment in our manifesto. Whatever any Conservative Member claims about mandates, we do have a clear mandate to incorporate the convention.

The proposals are proceeding and have had widespread support. It is right that the rights of the British people should have proper redress in the convention, which, after all, this country was heavily involved in setting up in the first place.

The other item on our constitutional agenda is freedom of information. That will be a difficult issue, as there are calls for many different things to be included, but we have published our proposals and they have been widely welcomed. It is long overdue that the government of this country—the way in which we do things and the information that is made available to people—is enshrined in a proper system of freedom of information. If Conservative Members doubt that, I challenge them to put forward their arguments against freedom of information. I doubt whether anybody is prepared to do so. That leads to the question why, in their long years in government, the Conservatives failed to do something about the issue. Perhaps in due course we will discover the reason. The people of this country deserve the same rights as those enjoyed in other parts of Europe and the Government are determined to ensure that they get them.

Finally, there are the proposals for the English regions, in particular the proposals for regional development agencies.

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

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 23 January.

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