§ 11 am
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this debate, which is crucial for the United Kingdom. This morning, however, I speak more particularly as the Member of Parliament for North Wiltshire. It is worth my admitting, before anyone else points it out, that I am a Scot. I was born, bred and educated in Scotland, as I have already pointed out in one or two debates on devolution. Now, I speak not as a Scot but as someone who has spent more than half his life in England. I speak as an honorary Englishman, and as a Member who represents an English constituency.
This debate is vital for my constituents because, in the past two years of constitutional debate and the headlong rush towards devolution for Scotland and Wales, not a word has been said about the English question. England is a slumbering giant who is only now beginning to wake up and think about the English question.
I am delighted to see in his place this morning the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) who, 20 or 30 years ago, first raised all these issues in the famous West Lothian question. Unfortunately, he will have to leave the debate later, so we shall not hear his views on the English question, which would be to the point. The West Lothian question remains on the table, unanswered. The Labour Government, in their fixation on Scotland and Wales, have not even tried to address that question and its consequences for England.
Even the recent report by the Select Committee on Procedure, which is grandly entitled "The Procedural Consequences of Devolution", does not mention the English question in its many hundreds of pages. It makes no attempt whatsoever to address the consequences of devolution for my constituents in England. That is a shame, because there is a variety of procedural and structural solutions to the West Lothian question which should have been addressed, and which should be addressed now that Scotland and Wales are, so to speak, out of the way.
Those solutions include a full English Parliament. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who recently produced a book called "The English Parliament". If she is lucky enough to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, she will undoubtedly want to expand on that option. Another procedural option is curiously called the in-and-out method. I shall not attempt to deal with all the various options this morning because this is not an academic lecture. We are not discussing the various constitutional possibilities available to us, although I look forward to hearing my right hon. and hon. Friends' solutions to the West Lothian question later in the debate.
The important point is the principle that, since devolution, Members of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood speak and vote exclusively on Scottish business; to a lesser degree, Members of the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff speak and vote on Welsh matters, and Northern Ireland Members in Stormont will speak and vote on Northern Irish matters. Why, then, should Scottish and Welsh Members come here and speak and vote on English matters? That position is totally illogical and unsustainable. Why should the fate of my constituents in North Wiltshire depend on the peculiar parliamentary 582 arithmetic that includes those people who have chosen to set up their own Parliament in Edinburgh and Assembly in Wales? There is no logic in that, and it is important that this Parliament now addresses that question.
If the solution is that English Members of Parliament come to Westminster to speak and vote exclusively on English matters, as they did before 1707, so be it. That is my personal preference. That would be the price that Scotland and Wales must pay for devolution. If we have English MPs in this place speaking and voting on English matters, there will be important constitutional consequences that we must start to address. Those consequences are the prime reason that the Labour party will not even consider that solution.
First, it is extremely likely that the party in power—the majority party—in England would be different from the majority party in the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Gray
The Minister shakes his head. He would be right to say that in this Parliament, of course, there would be a Labour majority in England as there is in Scotland. I shall return to his challenge in a moment.
Labour's fear is that there would be a Conservative majority in England, as there has been for about 90 per cent. of this century, even when there has been an overall Labour majority provided by the Scottish Labour MPs. While we have one Parliament, one Government and one constitution, we in North Wiltshire do not mind being dominated by Labour MPs and a Labour Government even if there is a Conservative majority in England. However, the position is quite different if Scotland and Wales have their own Parliament and Assembly respectively. Why should my constituents in North Wiltshire then be dominated by a Labour Government if there is a Conservative majority in England?
That brings me back to the Minister's indication of dissent a moment ago. If he believes, in his arrogant new Labour manner, that new Labour will have a majority in England for all time, I put to him not the West Lothian question but the Chippenham challenge: he must allow an English Government to be set up, based on the majority of Members of Parliament in England, as he appears to be confident that Labour will dominate that Government as well as the UK Government. Let the Minister put his money where his mouth is and agree to my proposal.
It is clear that if we had English Members of Parliament speaking and voting on English matters in Westminster, the UK Government would not fall every time they lost a Division in the English Parliament. They would want to maintain their power over the UK. The majority in England would effectively form an English Government. Perhaps an English Parliament is too grand an expression, but we could have an English Government. Certain Departments of State, particularly those that have no interest in Scotland and Wales, would then be answerable to English Ministers sitting in this place as part of an English Government, who would match those in Scotland and Wales.
If there were any difference in parity between the English and UK Governments, the position would be no more complex than it would if we had a Conservative 583 Government in the UK—as many Conservative Members hope and expect that we shall in two years—and a Labour Government in Holyrood or a Labour-dominated Assembly in Cardiff. The stresses and strains between Holyrood and Westminster, which have so often been pointed out by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, are precisely the same as those that would exist if we had a Labour Government nationally and an English Government.
The second problem of which the Labour Government are well aware, and the second reason that they will not even begin to accept my proposed solution, relates to the Barnett formula. If we had an English Government at Westminster, how could we justify the fact that the Government spend £4,792 per head in Scotland, compared to £3,897 in England? Why is less spent on the English than on the Scots? Why does Scotland annually receive a subsidy of £7 billion, or £1,000 per head of population?
That is fine while we are one nation with one Government and one Parliament. The richer parts of the nation must subsidise the poorer parts. I am only too pleased that that is the case. That would remain the case for the north-east and north-west of England and, perhaps, Devon and Cornwall. My relatively prosperous constituents in North Wiltshire should pay their taxes towards subsidising the less prosperous parts of the nation, but not when the less prosperous parts are making their own decisions. Why should my constituents subsidise decisions made in Holyrood over which I have no control and in which I have no say?
The Institute for Fiscal Studies considered that question carefully and said that if we ended the subsidy to Scotland, the base rate of income tax in Scotland would be 48p in the pound. If so—I should regret it from the point of view of my mother and my relations and friends who live in Scotland—so be it. The Scots will be realising for the first time the true cost of the Parliament with which I for one so often disagreed.
If there is such a solution to the West Lothian question, a number of interesting consequences arise will from it. The first I call the Airdrie and Shotts question. If the Government accept my solution, why on earth should Scottish Members of Parliament—in this case the Minister for Transport, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell)—have a say in London over English transport matters? The right hon. Lady cannot do so similarly in Holyrood. She has no influence over Scottish transport—she is not allowed to have any such influence. She is specifically excluded from talking about Scottish transport matters, but may pontificate on what English truckers and drivers must do. What possible justification can there be for that? I cannot go to Holyrood and pontificate on Scottish transport, so why should she do so on matters concerning my truckers in Wiltshire? Representing a Scottish constituency, she has no say whatever over transport matters in Scotland.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
The situation is even worse than that. The matter is not just one of the Minister for Transport pontificating. She is presiding over a roads budget in England which the Government have drastically slashed. The M6 in the north of my constituency, just south of the Scottish border, is a good case in point—an important piece of road has not been built. At the same time, the right hon. Lady, as a 584 Scottish Member of Parliament, is benefiting from a Scottish roads budget that is 24 per cent. greater. That is a fundamental injustice.
§ Mr. Gray
My right hon. Friend makes a very sound point. The Prime Minister will shortly have an opportunity to correct that wrong. If he is to avoid the wrath of the English, he must consider in the reshuffle that is coming up whether it will be acceptable for Scottish Members of Parliament to remain as Ministers in England.
There is a slightly broader question, too. Why should Scottish Members of Parliament have such a disproportionate effect in the Cabinet? Around the Cabinet table, there are at the moment 22 Cabinet Ministers. Five of them represent Scottish seats and a further two happen to be Scots representing constituencies here in England. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Social Security are all Scots who sit here in England and talk about English matters. The Scots amount to 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom's population, but are represented by 33 per cent. of the Cabinet. Why should that be?
While we were one nation, with one Parliament and one Government, that was of course acceptable. As a Scot who is proud to represent an English seat, I am only too delighted that my nation has had a disproportionate effect on running the world over the past 200 or 300 years. However, now that the Scots have gone their own way in Holyrood, how can we possibly justify the fact that 33 per cent. of the Cabinet that runs the United Kingdom are Scots, and the English are ignored?
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
In addition to the inequities that my hon. Friend has described, does he agree that Members of this House representing Scottish constituencies, who also serve in the Scottish Parliament and are therefore twin-trackers, should not be allowed to vote in this House so as to advantage their Scottish constituents and the cause of the Scottish Parliament, and in the process disadvantage the vast majority of constituencies represented in this House? Is that not palpably wrong?
§ Mr. Gray
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point on the arithmetic of the number of Members of Parliament here and their prospective jobs. If he will forgive me, I shall reply to his point in a moment.
Before I lose sight of the way in which Scots run the United Kingdom, I for once want to quote Jeremy Paxman—not usually a friend of anything that the Conservative party says, although on this occasion what he said was quite sensible. He said:An Englishman can be defined as someone who lives on an island in the North Sea governed by Scots.That may work for one Parliament, but the moment that there is a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, as is now so, it is no longer acceptable. England, this morning, is beginning to turn.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned the consequences for Back Benchers in this place. There are indeed consequences for Back Benchers' roles. At the moment, every Scottish Member of Parliament represents about 54,000 people, 585 and every English Member of Parliament represents about 69,000 people. I am particularly fortunate because I represent 77,000 people in North Wiltshire. I therefore represent about one and a half times as many people as Scots Members of Parliament do.
The Government realised that fact during the passage of the Scotland Act 1998, and wrote into the Act that as soon as time permits—I believe well into the next century, following the next boundary commission report—Scots Members of Parliament will move to parity with English Members. They will have to represent 69,000 people, and perhaps 77,000 people in one or two places, as we do. Why on earth should that be? What possible logic is there in a Scottish Member of Parliament who, due to the proportional representation system that has prevailed in Scotland, is helped out by two or three Members of the Scottish Parliament, doing the same job as I do single-handedly for my constituents in England?
I deal with education, health, the environment, transport and all such issues. I deal with every parliamentary issue on behalf of my 77,000 constituents, whereas there are four Members of Parliament for each Scottish constituency, and one deals only with foreign policy, defence and social security. What on earth will these guys in England do all day? Their constituency business will be divided among four people, and much of it will be dealt with in Edinburgh. They may have the Child Support Agency and one or two other constituency bits and pieces to address down here, but they will have nothing to do in most policy areas. How can they justify their time here?
What is more, how can they justify how much they are paid? How can I be paid £47,000 a year to represent 77,000 people on a range of policies, whereas, apparently, they will be paid £47,000 a year to do half or a quarter of my job? I say that slightly tongue in cheek because, of course, they will have the same outgoings as I do, and I would not want some of my friends who are Scottish Members of Parliament at the moment to cease buying my drinks in the bar. Nevertheless, the point behind my remarks is important. Scottish Members of Parliament may sit here, but they do not have a job to do.
Never mind parity, as the Scotland Act allows; what about reducing the number of Scottish Members of Parliament—the twin-trackers of whom my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham reminded us—perhaps even as far as the number of Members of the European Parliament who represent Scotland, which is currently eight? Perhaps we should generously allow 15 or 20 Scottish MPs to remain here to talk about UK issues, foreign policy and defence. Why should there be parity with the English? There should be significantly fewer constituencies. They wanted their own Parliament, and now that they have it, they must pay the price for it.
The only attempt that the Labour Government have made so far to address the English question has been to come up with the half-baked, half-hearted notion of English regional development agencies and regional assemblies to go with them. The Government hope that that will buy off the West Lothian question and be the magic answer to it. Of course, it is not for a host of reasons—although there are two primary ones.
586 There is absolutely no appetite in England for regional government. There is no such thing as the south-west of England. Swindon, towards the east of my constituency, is a great deal closer to Paris than it is to Penzance. Gloucester, which is also in the south-west, is closer to Glasgow than to Penzance. If anything, the south-west is Devon and Cornwall, but to include Bournemouth, Swindon and Gloucester in it is simply nonsense. The same of course applies to the south-east, for example. There is no such thing as the south-east; to try to suggest otherwise and that there will be a Parliament for it is nonsense.
There is no appetite for such government; the Government are merely trying to find some way of answering the unanswerable West Lothian question. Anyhow, no one has ever suggested that regional assemblies should have the right to make primary legislation, as the Scottish Parliament does. There is no link between the two forms of government; the proposed regional government is an attempt to fudge the issue.
§ Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)
Such a proposal may be an attempt to fudge the issue, but is it not slightly more sinister? It is very convenient for there to be all these regions, given the Government's intention to create a federal Europe of regions.
§ Mr. Gray
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. I was alarmed the other day to see a European map of Britain on which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were marked, but for England all it said was "Regions of the European Union". The word "England" was not mentioned at all. The truth that is known by all of us from England is that England has as strong an identity and place in the world as either Scotland or Wales, but that we have allowed ourselves to forget it.
It is perfectly healthy, and no form of English nationalism, to remind ourselves of that English identity. Perhaps we should consider moving the May bank holiday, for example, from its absurd position of 1 May, and hold it a week earlier, on 23 April, to celebrate St. George's day. Why not be proud of St. George and the dragon? St. George is as great a hero as St. Andrew or St. David. Shakespeare called Englandthis blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England".The people of England have quietly watched the Scots and the Welsh go their own way, but now is the time for us to assert our English rights. Our English identity must be recognised, and the unbalanced English constitution must be righted. As G. K. Chesterton put it:Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget.For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.As Churchill said, when he was on the other side of the Chamber:There is a long-forgotten—nay almost forbidden word, which means more to me than any other. That word is England.Now is the time for the House to speak for England.
§ Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, as I think that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has made some very interesting points. Although I think that he was a little harsh to say that there has been no response from 587 the Government to the West Lothian question, it is certainly true that there has been no convincing response to the challenge that is posed by devolution to Scotland and Wales. I should make it clear that I welcome moves to devolution in Scotland and in Wales, but I also recognise that devolution has implications for England, many of which have been touched on by the hon. Gentleman.
One of the contributions towards answering the West Lothian question has to be devolution to the English regions. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire and I disagree on that issue. However, I think that he was right to say that devolution to the English regions will not in itself be an answer to the West Lothian question.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman was wrong when he said that there is absolutely no appetite for English devolution. A recent MORI poll found that two thirds of voters would like decisions to be made closer to home. We are one of the most centralised nations in the democratic world. Far too much is decided at Westminster and in Whitehall that people would instinctively welcome being decided nearer to home, at a more community level.
§ Mr. Harvey
That is not the purpose of local councils. Local councils are responsible for running public services in their communities.
Although many services in this country are operated on a regional level, those regions are not conterminous from one sphere of public service to another. We have one set of health regions; we have different Departments operating in completely different regions; and we have the media operating in still different regions. Every organisation in this country divides itself to form a regional footprint of one sort or another, and there is absolutely no commonality between them in how they do so. We are almost unique in the democratic world in doing that.
Some people say that because England is small geographically, there is no need for division into the provinces, states or regions into which other countries divide themselves. I appreciate that point, but in England we are trying to organise public services for far greater numbers of people on the basis of a far more centralised footprint than almost any other country in the world. I therefore believe that, over time, there will be more demand for devolution in England.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that, currently, either in his constituency or in mine, there is not a clamour for the creation of a south-west regional parliament.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us, as he develops his remarks, whether he would retain parish councils, district councils, county councils and regional councils—plus this place, plus the European Parliament? If so, how would he explain that to his taxpayers?
§ Mr. Harvey
I have every intention of addressing that issue, and shall come to it in just a few moments.
§ Mr. Harvey
No; I shall make a little progress, if I may.
588 We organise services regionally, but in a very muddled and inconsistent manner. I agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that the footprint being used by the Government's regional offices, which is being duplicated for tomorrow's European elections, is simply wrong, and that the boundaries that they use make absolutely no sense. The boundaries are slightly more sensible in the north of England than in the midlands. However, in the south of England, it is sheer nonsense to suggest that one should pass through only two regions in driving from Penzance to Dover, which is a distance equivalent to that from London to Edinburgh. As a result of that nonsense, there is certainly much less support for moving towards regionalism in the south of England than there is in the north.
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I very much agree with the Government's moves to establish regional development agencies. My only regret is that the agencies do not have bigger budgets and greater powers. However, I hope that, over time, those will come. Currently, although the RDAs' budgets total about £800 million, all but 10 per cent. of that is simply funds drawn together from schemes that already existed and put under a different form of management.
I recently met the chairman and chief executive of the south-west RDA, which is making good progress in developing an ambitious but realistic economic strategy. Like me, however, I think that people at the RDA are concerned that the scale of their success will be limited by the lack of resources and freedoms available to them.
Regional chambers are developing alongside RDAs. In a sense, the chambers are an embryo of directly elected regional assemblies, which I also welcome. However, at least for the time being, the chambers are nothing more than talking shops. The Deputy Prime Minister has been rather slow in designating chambers as the official bodies that the RDAs must consult, and that has not enhanced the RDAs' credibility. Nevertheless, we are able to see where the Government are beginning to go with the policy.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) that the Government's policy on regional devolution is part of a ghastly plot to do away with the nation state, but believe that it will simply put us on the same basis established by other nation states.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate the fact that whenever hon. Members talk about taking powers from this Parliament to other bodies—whether to the European Parliament, regional assemblies or to any other devolved body—they are really talking about depreciating and devaluing the importance of this House of Parliament and the importance and relevance of its Members?
§ Mr. Harvey
The starting point of my speech was that Britain is too centralised. Therefore, if we decentralise, we shall by definition be taking powers away from this House. Personally, I have no great paranoia about that. In a sense, we are too centralised, and it would be a good thing to decentralise. I think that my constituents would welcome the idea of decisions being made nearer to where they live.
§ Mr. Harvey
No; I shall make more progress, if I may.
589 I have mentioned the fact that the boundaries are not realistic, and that they should be revisited before we go any further down the devolution path. However, the Government must themselves take the lead in using a common definition of "region", and they should ensure that Departments that currently are not organised according to the regional footprint become so organised. Nevertheless, as I said, that will be only part of the solution to the West Lothian problem, and it cannot be the whole solution.
Neither I nor anyone else would want different English regions to have different criminal laws, different school systems or leaving ages, or completely different health provision systems; and we certainly would not want people in the east midlands to drive on the left, while those in the west midlands drove on the right. Therefore, many important issues will still have to be decided at Westminster in primary legislation. Once certainly cannot say that devolution to the regions is the whole answer to the West Lothian question, because it certainly is not. That brings us to the West Lothian question.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that, in the long term, it is not sustainable for Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament to come to this place to vote on and run English services. The issue will come to a head most particularly when we have a general election with the type of outcome to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is entirely possible that, in a tighter general election, on current party lines, there could be a Labour majority across the United Kingdom, but a Conservative majority in England. I have no difficulty with that. It would not result in a constitutional crisis. The situation would be similar if we had a Conservative majority across the UK and a Labour majority in the Scottish Parliament. We should not be hugely concerned about that.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for charitably giving way. To prevent the House from being enveloped in a fog of confusion, would he care to answer two simple questions? First, does he, individually or on behalf of his party, believe that twin-tracking—or, as some people impolitely call it, double troughing—whereby a Member of this House is also a Member of the Scottish Parliament, is in principle wrong? Secondly, given that he has said that he has no objection to a decentralisation of powers, are we to take it that he objects to the centralisation of powers? If so, will he explain his tergiversation on entry to the euro, which manifestly involves the centralisation of power in the European Union?
§ Mr. Harvey
I am not sure that entry to the euro has anything to do with constitutional reform in England and the balance between England, Scotland and Wales which we are discussing.
I do not favour a permanent dual mandate, but it is a reasonable interim arrangement when a new body is brought into being. The rules that will not permit that beyond the next round of elections are a sensible balance.
590 I do not support the ideas of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on the creation of a separately elected English Parliament, but there is nothing wrong with this House sitting in English session, excluding the representatives of Scottish constituencies, when it is discussing English business. Similarly, there is no difficulty with English and Welsh Members sitting together here when English and Welsh matters are being discussed.
§ Mr. Harvey
I note the right hon. Gentleman trying to get in, but time is pressing and I am supposed to keep to a time limit, so if he will forgive me I shall not let him in at the moment.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked about the different layers of government. The Government have already said in two or three places that, before any region had a regional assembly, there would have to be unitary systems of local government. I entirely agree. It would be unacceptable for taxpayers to have a district council, a county council and a regional assembly, so unitary systems of local government would be a prerequisite, but I hope that that would not be brought about by means of the ludicrous and farcical commission process that we went through under the previous Government, under the chairmanship of Sir John Banham.
To sum up, we live in the most centralised nation in the world. It is essential to introduce some devolution in England, but that is not a solution to the West Lothian question. It will still be necessary for English Members to sit here alone as an English body when discussing English business.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
When people went to the polling booths at the general election, I am sure that they did not realise that Labour was planning the restructuring of our constitution. The party had no intention of making that clear. Since the election, six constitutional Bills have come before the House, providing for change in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, as well as reform of the Lords and, most significantly, the creation of regional assemblies. Those issues have not been linked in the public mind as a massive change in the constitutional structure that has served us very well for generations, giving us a remarkable amount of peace. We have never seen refugees moving around our country, or the disturbances and turmoil that we see to this day in Europe.
The harmony that we have enjoyed is being disrupted in the most irresponsible way by the Labour Government, purely for political advantage. They see the process as a way of establishing their power in the Chamber into the foreseeable future. They also want to bring us closer to the European structure. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), whom I congratulate heartily on securing the debate, has pointed out, the hidden agenda for England involves the Committee of the Regions, which is part and parcel of the Maastricht treaty.
It is no accident that England has been left out of the referendums, which I am sure that the Liberal Democrats greatly support. I am astonished that the hon. Member for 591 North Devon (Mr. Harvey) could want yet another layer of government. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats think that people have bottomless pockets to pay for such structures. The Scottish Parliament is already predicted to cost £50 million a year, but we all know that that will be a massive underestimate. We have already said that some people will be drawing twin salaries for popping up and down on first-class flights between here and Edinburgh to poke their nose into English affairs whenever it suits the Labour party to sway a vote one way or another. They will be able to vote on matters of domestic importance to England.
§ Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)
There is no first-class fare between Scotland and England on British Airways.
§ Mrs. Gorman
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. Private enterprise has clearly cottoned on to the fact that the Scots are canny with their money and do not want to waste it.
§ Mrs. Gorman
With our money, then; I bet that they travel first class if they come down by train.
The issue is well illustrated by one of the Labour party's thinkers, as I believe that he is known—the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who has recently fallen from grace in his party, but who occupied a prominent position in its thinking and strategy. He announced at a meeting of the European Movement in March 1998:The era of pure representative democracy is slowly coming to an end. Democracy and legitimacy need constant renewal.I am sure that we all agree with that fairly bland statement. He then said:They need to be redefined with each generation. Representative government is being complemented by more direct forms of involvement from the Internet to Referenda.Remarkably, he missed out England, where 48 million of our population reside, when offering referendums.
Two years ago, I promoted a Bill calling for a referendum on whether the people of England wanted a Parliament for England. I used that term advisedly. It has nothing to do with nationalism; it has to do with fairness. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) has frequently pointed out, there is no justification for leaving the people of England out of decisions on their future, when that courtesy has been paid to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Our country is to be sold off in a gigantic boot sale, a bit at a time, to Europe so that it can dispose of us and our long-established traditions. The institutions that we take for granted, including this place and the other House, which is currently being blitzed by Labour, are tremendously important for the stability of our nation. They have proved their worth over generations and we disturb them at our peril. One of the basic tenets of membership of this House is that we are all equal and our rights to speak in debates and our ability to influence legislation are equal, but Labour's policies for Scotland and Wales have disturbed that.
Labour is not the only party involved. Historically, it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, who gave the Scottish people a Scottish Office to deal with 592 domestic issues. There was no great need for a new Parliament in Scotland because many of the decisions have always been made within the Scottish Office and that tradition has continued, particularly in education and law, and we have all learned lessons from that. There has been no particular political animosity in the Conservative party towards Scotland, but I know that that issue has been played up by the Scottish nationalists.
§ Mr. Bercow
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is indicative of the sheer indifference to the wishes and interests of the people of England that there is not a single Labour Back Bencher sitting behind the Minister?
§ Mrs. Gorman
That is a telling point. However, in the Tea Room, quietly and out of earshot of the those on the Government Front Bench, I have heard murmurings among Labour Beck Benchers—when they can be bothered to turn up—about their considerable misgivings over what the Government are doing to our country. Now that they are beginning to find a little courage, I hope that they will put in their fourpenny worth on this issue.
As I was saying, the Conservative party has never done anything to bring about disturbances such as we are seeing now. Indeed, more recently than Lord Salisbury, Winston Churchill created the post of a Minister for Wales and gave Wales a seat at the Cabinet table within the United Kingdom Government—and that is what matters.
Naturally, the Labour Government would prefer to keep the Union alive—the Prime Minister has said that on a number of occasions. Of course that is what they want because it provides Celtic voting fodder at Westminster. The Scots and Welsh will be able to represent views here, particularly on budgetary issues which, as has already been pointed out, will be grossly imbalanced to the disadvantage of the English taxpayer.
There is no question of the English people tolerating such a situation indefinitely. If the Government believe in referendums, as the right hon. Member for Hartlepool has stated, is it not time that they decided that those of us who live in England, including those of Scottish and Welsh origin and others from all over the globe, should have a say? We have taxation without representation in parts of the United Kingdom that will be disposing of the money, whereas the people in Scotland and Wales will have representation within their Parliament and Assembly without the need to raise the funds to back it up. We have already seen the problems that that is likely to cause.
The hon. Member for North Devon talked about more regional devolution of power. I wonder whether he has any idea what the powers will be or their limit. We have already pointed out the ludicrous nature of a separate transport policy in different regions—but it is possible. We saw such an anomaly immediately after the election of the Scottish Parliament, when the Labour party needed to get into bed with the Liberal Democrats. There was a hoo-hah about whether they would overturn their own Government's policy on higher education funding. Such anomalies will develop all over the country and we will have fratricide. People will contend with each other for funds. There will be animosity, and the harmony, which, as I have said, is vital to the success of our country, will be damaged.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am sure that my hon. Friend is not exaggerating the different policies that may be in 593 operation. The lesson we have learned from the Lib-Lab pact in Scotland is that the Liberals were so desperate to get jobs and to become Deputy First Ministers that they backed down on their election promises and got into bed at the Government's price. There was no real dissension.
§ Mrs. Gorman
That is what happens when the Government are broken into bits and pieces and start doing deals. The same applies to proportional representation as a form of election.
§ Sir Robert Smith
In the spirit of the hon. Lady's belief that proportional representation is bad, she could solve the problem of the need for deals in the Scottish Parliament by urging every Scottish Conservative elected by PR—there would be no Conservatives without it—not to attend the Parliament or to vote. That would solve the problem.
§ Mrs. Gorman
The ludicrous nature of the hon. Gentleman's remarks will preclude me from allowing him any more interventions.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has pointed out, England is being wiped off the map. It is no accident but is part of the Labour Government's policy, which they are not prepared to declare openly to the British people. The Conservative party is making that clear and will continue to do so. We see the passions of patriotism beginning to stir in the breasts of those who live in England. I hope that the people of England who, as we know, have yet to be made fully aware of the implications for their back pockets as well as their hearts and minds, will, in the not-too-distant future, decide that the party which embraces their cause—the Conservative party, which has always believed in the Union of this country—will stand up for their right to be treated equally with the rest of the United Kingdom. They will then put the Labour party back where it belongs—on the Opposition Benches.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on obtaining this debate and on the lucid and logical presentation of his argument. It was a delight to listen to. I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) who can take credit for having broached this subject initially. She put it on the political agenda. Many people are grateful to her for doing so and for all she does to keep it in the public eye.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has recited many of the problems that exist today. He mentioned the West Lothian question and the problems created by the Barnett formula. He explained that both those problems have been exacerbated by Welsh and Scottish devolution which, in turn, is leading to the burgeoning demand for an English Parliament.
I should like to broaden the debate by drawing the House's attention to other problems. There is potential for the break-up of the United Kingdom. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) in an intervention when he rightly identified that as being part of a recognisable policy from 594 the European Union so that ultimately we have a Europe controlled, governed and ruled through the regions rather than through national Parliaments.
We are seeing the deliberate destruction of the United Kingdom constitution, ruthlessly pushed forward by the new Labour Government. It is consistent with the views of those in the Councils of the European Commission who want to see the power of national Parliaments reduced.
The other problems essentially concern the upper House. The new Labour Government know that their first move is to abolish the power of the hereditaries. We all know that that is their policy and, to give credit where it is due, they made no secret of it because it was in their election manifesto. However, many of us depart from the Labour Government because we recognise that they do not have a living clue what the next move will be. So, in addition to the problems caused by the West Lothian question, the Barnett formula and the burgeoning demand for an English Parliament we have the problems in the upper House. The argument rages back and forth as to whether we should have an upper House elected by universal suffrage or one that is appointed. If it is to be appointed, it is obvious that we would be increasing the patronage power of the Executive. There are some who argue that we should have a mix of the two.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's excellent, powerful and fascinating speech. However, I take issue with him on one point. I think that the Government and the Prime Minister know exactly what they want to do in the other place. They have made their first move to abolish hereditary peers and they do not intend to have another replacement chamber elected democratically or by any other means. Quite clearly they intend the Prime Minister to appoint his own placemen and to continue that for the next 20, 30 or 50 years.
§ Mr. Gill
My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful point and I do not resile from it. That is very likely the Government's intention. If it is, what I am about to suggest is even more pertinent than I originally anticipated. If the intention is to make the upper House an extension of the power of the patronage of the Prime Minister and the Executive, surely the House of Commons would wish to question that.
We should use the opportunity created by Lords reform to try to deal with as many as possible of the existing problems. I have instanced several of them. We must now be prepared to consider the creation of a United Kingdom federal Parliament sitting on the red Benches in the upper House and an English Parliament sitting on the green Benches here. That would eliminate at a stroke four real and readily identifiable problems.
The duties and responsibilities of the federal Parliament would be essentially those appertaining to defence, foreign affairs, law and order and Treasury, with all other functions devolved to the English and Scottish Parliaments and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. Admittedly, my proposal envisages a unicameral system, but it has to be recognised that the precedent for a unicameral system has already been well and truly established by Scottish and Welsh devolution.
What is more important is that the proposal eliminates any possibility of turf wars between the two elected Chambers. In addition, because the federal Parliament 595 would be elected by universal suffrage, it removes the prospect of an upper Chamber filled partially or entirely with placemen. The question of competing claims for democratic legitimacy as between two House of Parliament simply would not arise in those circumstances.
A federal Parliament comprising Members returned by unitary authorities and counties would bind the United Kingdom together at a time when its historical cohesiveness is under threat as never before. It would solve the West Lothian question, end the inequity of the Barnett formula, satisfy the English dimension and represent an intelligible and practical solution to an otherwise intractable problem.
As an addendum, it goes without saying that elections to the United Kingdom federal Parliament must be by the first-past-the-post system so as to ensure that as far as is humanly possible, ultimate power rests with the people and is not handed to the political parties.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
I regret that the time has come to take seriously the question of an English Parliament. I say that not because I am a devoted fan of the concept of an English Parliament or English nationalism, but because I passionately believe in the United Kingdom and keeping what we can of our United Kingdom Parliament. However, the United Kingdom is heading for destruction and so is the United Kingdom Parliament because of the unbalancing carried out by the Government in the past two years.
Scotland will have its own Parliament and Wales its own Assembly. I suspect that in order to do any deal at any price in Northern Ireland, the Government will settle for anything there, so we can assume that at some time, sooner rather than later, there will be independent Government in Northern Ireland. This Parliament will be left quite unbalanced in its rights, duties and responsibilities.
The United Kingdom Parliament has worked because in this Chamber we were all equals. Admittedly, the Prime Minister, primus inter pares, is slightly more equal than others as are the rest of the Government, with their unique duties. Nevertheless, attempts were made to make sure that we represented roughly the same number of constituents with a unique formula built in for Scotland giving Scottish Members fewer constituents and therefore slightly greater powers. However, that was part of our settlement and it was acceptable as long as we had a United Kingdom Parliament in which all Members had equal voting rights. When we walk through this Lobby or that, we do so as individuals and a vote on one side is worth exactly the same as a vote on the other side.
From 1 July, however, that will no longer be the case as there will be 12 double troughers: six Scottish Nationalists, two Liberal Democrats and five Labour. A number of Members of the Scottish Parliament, who yesterday were voting themselves bigger salaries or allowances, will also sit in this House as Members of the United Kingdom Parliament. The nonsense will be that 72 Members representing Scottish constituencies will continue to sit in this House with the right to vote on everything in my constituency and the constituencies of all my right hon. and hon. Friends from England, but they will have no right to vote on those issues in Scotland and nor will we. That will unbalance the House. Therefore I 596 say to the Government, not with any sense of glee because it fills me with great distress, that they will cause the destruction of the United Kingdom.
This Parliament has worked rather like a centrifuge. If each side is loaded equally, it can spin at any speed and turn a great number of revolutions without destruction, but if one side of the centrifuge is overloaded, it will become unbalanced and inevitably destroy the whole machine. While we are still a United Kingdom, I can say to my constituents in Cumberland, just south of the Scottish border where there is an appalling stretch of M6 dual carriageway—the so-called Cumberland gap—that the Government are spending 24 per cent. more on roads in Scotland than they are on roads in England, but as part of United Kingdom policy, wealthier areas subsidise poorer ones.
Last weekend, some of my constituents pointed out to me that now that the Scots have their own Parliament, why should we tolerate Scottish MPs and MPs being able to vote on budgetary decisions in England which allocate their own constituencies 25 per cent. more money than English constituencies. The Minister for Transport, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell) is one of the grossest and vilest examples of that. We have a Labour Minister from Glasgow dictating roads policy in England when she and other Ministers from Scotland have the benefit of higher financial rewards for their own constituencies. I shall not labour the point any more, but my constituents have spotted it and they do not like it.
Something must done about those injustices. They are not just perceived injustices, given that the Government have now created two classes of Member of Parliament in this House—those who get the money and those who have to vote it through but have no rights to it. Creating two classes of Member of Parliament here will destroy this House in its present form.
We must go down the route suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), which would be an acceptable solution. The Government have decided to give Scotland its independence, and Wales its semi-independence. Let us make no bones about it—Scotland will be independent sooner rather than later. One cannot be 95 per cent. pregnant—one cannot be 95 per cent. independent. Having given the Scots almost complete independence, the Government have discovered that the Scots have said, "Thank you, but we want a little more." The Government have not understood that reaction.
Sooner rather than later, Scotland will be independent, yet Scottish Members of Parliament will have unique voting rights in this House on domestic English matters. The only way in which we can keep something of our United Kingdom is by moving to a federal system. I despised such a system until last year, when I saw it as possibly the only solution. If Scotland has its own Parliament deciding on health, roads, education and other devolved matters—and Wales has the same—it makes sense to consider a similar solution for England, so that those matters are decided by English Members of Parliament and by English taxpayers, making the most of the budget that they have been allocated, or any extra money that they wish to raise by their own taxation powers.
However, for the sake of the defence and security of this country—and our voting clout in Europe—let us not destroy the United Kingdom. For defence, security and 597 foreign affairs—and for our votes in the Council of Ministers in Europe—let us keep the United Kingdom for those large, federal issues. It grieves me to come to this conclusion, because I believe that our previous system worked well. However, that is gone and there is no point in crying over spilled milk.
Scotland will be independent and Wales is going its own way. Presumably, Northern Ireland will be hived off by the Government to Prime Minister Adams in due course. If we are to keep something of the United Kingdom, the federal system suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow must be something at which we look seriously. We could use either this Chamber or the House of Lords, as my hon. Friend suggests.
I am sad that we have had to debate this matter, because I thought in the past that the concept of an English Parliament was unnecessary—and it was. However, an English Parliament is now the only possible solution to the West Lothian question, and in terms of keeping what remains of the United Kingdom intact. It will be the only way to stop the nasty side of English nationalism, which will rise if the perceived injustices continue.
§ 12.3 pm
§ Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on obtaining this debate, which relates to matters of enormous constitutional importance. However, the field of argument is populated by more than its fair share of canards, Aunt Sallies, delusions and mirages, some of which I shall endeavour to knock down.
The Minister has argued that the case for an English Parliament originates solely from some unpleasant form of English nationalism. That is not remotely true—certainly not in my case. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—who has played a sterling part in bringing this issue forward—said that I have always argued that this is not an issue of nationalism, but of fairness and duty. It is an issue of fairness to English constituents, who have had their democracy diluted—a democratic deficit has been created for them—and it is an issue of duty on our part. Just as we can no more give away the sovereignty of our country on behalf of our constituents as their representatives, neither can we allow their democracy to be diluted and undermined. That is taking away from them something which they own and we do not.
This is an issue primarily of primary legislation. I had some sympathy with some of the points made by the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey), but he did not spend long dealing with that issue. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), I favour an English Parliament not from a sense of romance and emotion—although there is plenty of romance and emotion about feeling English—but through a clinical application of logic. Like my right hon. Friend, I would not have started from here, if I had been given the choice. I think that the United Kingdom's original arrangements were viable, and they were admired by many other democracies. However, we do not have that choice any more.
Now, it is possible for the United Kingdom Parliament to be unrepresentative of an English nation, but to legislate for that English nation against the political will 598 of that English nation. I arrived at my conclusion by eliminating all the other options—a sort of Conan Doyle approach. All the other proposals would lead, unfortunately and inevitably, to a constitutional crisis of one sort or another.
We have heard talk of English-designated days, English-designated legislation or an English Grand Committee. Let us imagine how that would work where the UK Parliament was of a different political persuasion from the English Members of that Parliament. People talk of Labour and Tories in this context. Frankly, we are designing a constitution for centuries, not years or days. Therefore, we must allow for the fact that there might be two completely different parties dealing with this system.
In circumstances where there were different political persuasions in the UK Parliament, the UK Government would have come to power on the basis of a manifesto which would have included policies relating to transport and health—issues that are massively important to the voters who put them there. They come top of the salience league when people are elected—they are what our electors care about most.
§ Mr. Harvey
If a system had emerged where the English Parliament was responsible for those matters while the UK Parliament had a completely different set of responsibilities, why would the Government come to power on that platform? Surely their platform would be different.
§ Mr. Davis
That is precisely my point. My argument concerns what would happen if there were not an English Parliament, but an English Grand Committee, or English-designated legislation or English-designated days. In those circumstances, the UK Government could propose a health Bill which, because it would be an English health Bill, would be defeated. The Executive would be defeated time and time again on principle planks of their manifesto. How long would this Government put up with that situation? Straight away we would have a major constitutional crisis.
It is for that reason that I come to the inevitable conclusion—with no great pleasure—that we need an English Parliament. It could sit in this place, and I am happy with the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), which is a perfectly sensible option. There are many other options as to where it sits, how it is chosen and whether it includes people who are already Members of the UK Parliament.
We must have an English Executive. If we have anything other than that, we cannot solve the problem. That is why I arrive at my position—not by emotion or sentiment, but by the elimination of the other possibilities. If we choose the other possibilities, we will have a constitutional crisis, and then we really will have a problem with English nationalism. At that point, the English will feel badly treated.
I have one minute to deal with some of the canards, so I shall be brief. It is argued that such conflict does not happen very often, but we are legislating for centuries. If it happens once, it is a problem, and in centuries it will happen much more often.
Some argue that an English Parliament would accelerate the break-up of the Union. My argument is based on my experience in Canada, which has a similar 599 federal system. There are much greater tensions between Quebec and Ontario than there ever are between Scotland and England, yet the federal system has withstood the pressures.
Some argue that we would play into Europe's hands by taking the federal route. In fact—I speak as an ex-Minister for Europe—the countries that are best at defending themselves against European predations are those that are themselves federal states. Germany is one example. I do not want to pick Belgium as an example, but we should note that it has to ratify European legislation through seven parliaments, so it has a ratchet.
Most of the canards can be seen to be false if one examines them carefully. The only solution that we can ultimately adopt is an English Parliament for the English people, giving democracy to all the British people.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
This has been an astonishing debate, first because the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) are perhaps among the most serious that face the nation today and secondly because—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), whom one would have expected, above all other hon. Members, to be present, and who has been present in so far as his diary has permitted—we have Witnessed the entire absence of interest on the part of the very large number of Labour Members.
My right hon. and hon. Friends would agree that that is remarkable. It arises not from any lack of interest in Adjournment debates as such but from the fact that Labour Members, and the Government, do not regard these issues as serious. They do not think that there is a problem. We owe my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire a great debt for bringing a very real problem to our attention.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
There is a packed meeting of the parliamentary Labour party upstairs, with the Home Secretary addressing us on the question of asylum. One ought to view these matters in proportion.
§ Mr. Letwin
That may well be part of the explanation. I shall be most interested to see whether Labour Members show any real interest in the subject by raising it themselves on other occasions.
The Government have for most of the past two years taken the position that there is not a problem. I shall be very surprised if the Minister tells us anything other than that the Government do not think that anything needs to be done, with the possible exception of the creation of regional government in England. Some of my hon. Friends animadverted to that subject, but only the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) went into it in any detail.
The idea of regional government in England is far worse even than my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire suggested. We could add another layer of government and generate the huge paradox of accountability of no one having the slightest idea at which level various decisions are made. We are perilously close to that even now. The paradox is that the larger the number of forms of government we have, the less we can hold any of them to account, because the less idea we have about their actions.
600 The hon. Member for North Devon had a solution: to abolish county councils—and district councils, for all I know—and regionalise. That would move us in the opposite direction: far from bringing government down towards people, it would take it up away from them. Worse than that, the Government do not plan to introduce regional government in any rational form. They are suggesting regional referendums—no doubt without any rules to make them fair—and if, for example, the north-east, and no other area, voted in favour, we would have the bizarre arrangement of not only Scotland and Wales but other areas creating further imbalance in the constitution. I cannot imagine any less satisfactory form of dynamic constitution making.
Several of my right hon. and hon. Friends, absolutely rightly, said that the move towards regionalisation was part of a deeper plot. I do not know whether the Minister is part of that plot or whether the Government are aware that they are part of it. Much that happens in relation to our gradual absorption into a federal united states of Europe is not designed by anyone in this country; we merely fall into it by a series of lapses of attention. The European Commission has demonstrated its clear intention, in a series of remarkably well argued and powerful cases, proposed in various studies and in the maps to which my right hon. and hon. Friends have referred, that we should end with a Europe of the regions, without England, and indeed without the United Kingdom as an entity.
For all those reasons, the Conservative party is, and will remain, wholly opposed to the regionalisation of England as a solution to the West Lothian question. Moreover, such a move would require giving primary legislative powers to the regions, and that is not in the Government's, let alone anyone else's, wildest ambitions, so it does not even constitute the beginning of a solution.
How do we tackle the West Lothian problem? Conservative Members have lucidly and powerfully illustrated why it needs to be tackled: the imbalances and the sense of unfairness to which the current situation will increasingly give rise. There must be a solution. We must come up with a set of policies to begin to diminish what will otherwise be a growing feeling of unfairness.
My right hon. and hon. Friends have, to a man—and a woman—argued with eloquence in favour of various forms of the solution broadly known as an English Parliament, which is in a sense a misnomer, because it really means an English Executive or Government, together with an assembly or parliament with primary legislative powers. I understand the reasons behind that view, as well as the objections advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) to other solutions, but I think that my right hon. and hon. Friends may have understated the difficulties attending the proposition that there should be an English parliament and an English Government.
There is no problem in principle about having a parliament within a federal state, as many countries operate such a system and we are now in the process of operating it vis-à-vis Scotland, but there is a problem if there is an imbalance between one part of the kingdom and another, and the fact is that, regardless of whether the situation is desirable, England is overwhelmingly larger, richer and more powerful than Scotland, and its Parliament and Government would be overwhelmingly larger and richer—and, I suspect, more powerful—than 601 any federal government. It would certainly be responsible for the great bulk of the taxation and spending in the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Letwin
I am saying not that there is anything wrong with that in itself, but that it would cause difficulties for a federal Government, supposedly responsible for macro-economic policy, if they could not control the great bulk of fiscal policy and expenditure. I beg my right hon. and hon. Friends to attend to that issue, which needs serious consideration before we leap in the direction of an English Parliament.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden asked whether a federal UK Government, if one were brought about by the creation of an English Government, would be able to maintain sufficient national confidence in the face of a powerful English Government to hold its own in the European Union. All my right hon. and hon. Friends would agree that any federal government should have such an ambition.
Because of such problems we need to pause before launching ourselves into the idea of an English Parliament. We must ask whether there is any other less dramatic solution that might address the West Lothian question, while not suffering from those drawbacks.
The range of options that my right hon. and hon. Friends have described, including giving a veto over English legislation to Members of this House who represent English constituencies, are serious possibilities. I do not think that they would necessarily create constitutional crises, but I see that they would create constitutional tensions.
I fear that what the Government have created, and the problems to which it has given rise, make it impossible to conceive of a solution that is wholly perfect for this country, configured as we are. I do not think that regional government gives us the beginning of an answer. I see that an English Parliament and an English Government would give us one answer, but an answer that involves real difficulties. I do not argue that a veto for English Members over English legislation, or any of the other variants, gives us a perfect solution, but those ideas may have fewer deficiencies than that of an English Parliament.
In any event, this is the terrain on which we need to hold the debate. We need to admit that there is a problem and to agree that it needs a solution, and that we need to discuss urgently as a nation—with the co-operation of the Government, I hope, rather than in the absence of any real interest from them—whether we shall choose an English Parliament, or perhaps some more modest proposal, so as to discover whether that would be a sufficient response.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)
One of the pleasures and privileges of the life of a junior Minister is to be frequently present in the Chamber on Wednesday mornings and at other times when Adjournment debates are taking place. I will have 602 had the pleasure of listening to and responding to two debates this morning, and I must tell the House that there was a marked contrast between the two.
The first was a serious and intelligent debate with high quality contributions from both sides of the House, characterised by an almost total absence of party political jibes, nasty personal attacks, overblown rhetoric and paranoid hyperbole. However, I have to say that—with at least three honourable exceptions, including the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who wound up for the Opposition—the tone of this debate has been rather different. At its lowest, it sank to inexcusable and nasty personal attacks on the Minister for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell). To one of the Opposition Members who made those attacks, I must point out that my right hon. Friend represents Airdrie and Shotts, not Glasgow. It is somewhat odd that a Member who referred to the nasty side of English nationalism should reveal such ignorance about Scotland.
The Government are determined to decentralise power, to open up government, to reform Parliament and to increase individual rights. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London authority and the proposals set out in our local government White Paper are all important examples of how government is being tailored to suit the circumstances of the different areas within the United Kingdom.
The debate about some form of self-government for parts of the United Kingdom seems always to have been with us. The response over the years—from the time of Lord Salisbury, who was mentioned in the debate—has been to provide for increasing administrative devolution, with powers and functions being exercised by the Secretary of State. But that was not matched with arrangements to ensure accountability to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—or, indeed, to the people of parts of England. The need for action to address that "democratic deficit" became more and more pressing. Only by taking action to relieve those concerns could we provide a sound framework to maintain and secure the long-term future of the United Kingdom.
Some would argue that devolution means the end of the UK as we know it. That tends to be the cry of those who are resistant to change, and have resisted it over the years. We want there to be change, where appropriate, to address real concerns, because we know that resistance, especially unthinking resistance, to change has given added force to the voices of those who argue that there is no possibility of responding to the legitimate concerns for more devolved government in different parts of the United Kingdom.
Any student of the history of these islands who thinks about the debates in this House more than a century ago, when the idea of some degree of devolution in Ireland was first considered, will recognise the force of the argument that unthinking resistance to change does not guarantee the integrity of the United Kingdom. The Government are determined to support the continued integrity of the United Kingdom by responding to the legitimate concerns of the different elements within the UK who wish to see more devolved power.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) 603 that referendums are an important part of his party's new democratic outlook? If so, will he explain why the people who live in England are not allowed to have a referendum to express those views—if, indeed, they hold them?
§ Mr. Raynsford
I have two answers for the hon. Lady. First, I agree with the views expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). Secondly, I must remind her that she is wrong, because one of the referendums involved the people of London, who had an explicit opportunity to say whether they wanted a degree of devolved power within London—power that is currently exercised by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but which will in future be exercised by a democratically elected London mayor. I shall deal with that element in a moment.
The first step in our regional agenda for England was to establish regional development agencies to improve competitiveness and to provide for effective co-ordination of economic development. The RDAs were established last December and became operational on 1 April.
We expect RDAs to become powerhouses for regional economic development. Currently only two English regions exceed the European average in terms of GDP. That cannot be right, and we must take action to tackle that deficit. RDAs are now lead bodies at regional level for co-ordinating inward investment initiatives, raising skills, improving the competitiveness of business, and social and physical regeneration.
Our aim is for RDAs to provide a framework for economic decision making in the regions, and to give a better strategic focus. They need to support and enhance national policies, while addressing the needs of the regions. We are also encouraging the formation of regional chambers to build up the voice of the regions within the current framework.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) chided us for the delay in proceedings, but last month we designated the first ever regional chambers—in the north-west, the east midlands and the west midlands. Chambers in other regions are currently under consideration. We are proceeding, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on the basis of consent and the views of the different regions, which, as he acknowledged in his speech, is an appropriate approach. We shall continue in that vein.
604 The chambers are voluntary groupings of local councillors and representatives of the various sectors with a stake in a region's economic, social and environmental well-being.
§ Mr. Raynsford
Very briefly, because I am trying to respond to a debate, and I have been given only 10 minutes in which to do so.
§ Mr. Maclean
Is the Minister aware that in the north-west, which he has mentioned, the regional chamber is already planning to call itself the north-west regional assembly, and that 70 per cent. of its members are councillors, with not much representation from productive industry?
§ Mr. Raynsford
The right hon. Gentleman is clearly extremely unhappy about the idea of a chamber or regional assembly in his region, but we believe that it is right that the voices of those who have proper responsibilities in the region should be taken into account. That includes councillors, as well as representatives of other sectors. As I have already said, the chambers are representative of a wider group of people than councillors. As the RDAs are business led, it is appropriate that there should be a counterbalance in the form of the chambers, which involve democratic representation.
We have given the chambers a specific role in relation to RDAs—to help make them responsive to regional views and to give an account of themselves to those with an interest in their work. We also remain committed to move in due course to directly elected regional government where there is a demand for it. How quickly we move in that direction will depend in large part on the success of the RDAs and regional chambers—
§ Mr. Raynsford
I am trying to talk about England. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, who took a great deal of time to talk in absurdly inflated and extravagant language, had allowed me rather more time—[Interruption.]—and were not barracking me now, they might learn something on the subject, instead of pandering to their own prejudices.