HL Deb 17 June 1999 vol 602 cc412-4

3.18 p.m.

Lord Ellenborough asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to restrict the voting rights of Members of Parliament for Scottish constituencies in the Westminster Parliament in relation to matters affecting England.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

No, my Lords. Members of Parliament representing Scottish constituencies will continue to enjoy their current voting rights.

Lord Ellenborough

My Lords, I can hardly thank the Minister for that Answer. Are the Government not concerned that the recent, somewhat lengthy and voluble report, with the grandiose title, Procedural Consequences of Devolution, totally ignored what has now become known as the "English Question" and produced absolutely no proposals to allow English MPs to vote on English matters? Cannot the Government by now wake up and realise the potential dangers to the United Kingdom? Burying their heads in the devolution sand causes resentment to the English and undermines England's very identity as a nation, not least with the Government's insulting proposals to fragment England into artificial regions.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, English MI's will of course continue to be able to vote on English matters. The devolution agenda in no way attacks, impugns or derogates from the English identity. Indeed, it may assist the pride that Scots people rightly have in their national identity and undoubtedly is likely to do so in Wales. This is part of a constitutional change which I believe, as it develops, will have increasing support in every part of the United Kingdom.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, with regard to constitutional change, I see from Hansard that some Answers to Questions in Parliament are now being refused on the ground that they cover matters devolved to Scotland, in spite of the fact that this Parliament remains ultimately responsible and the Government are apparently going to propose legislation to this Parliament covering some matters otherwise devolved to Scotland. On what criteria, therefore, are Ministers refusing to answer Questions?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not sure it is Ministers who decide to refuse; I believe it is a question for the House authorities as to whether the Questions are appropriately put. If I am wrong about that, the principle is perfectly well established that matters which have been devolved by the decision of this House as well as by the decision of another place. either in the context of Wales or of England, are properly to be answered by Ministers in the Scottish Parliament, in due time the Northern Ireland Assembly, or the Assembly in Cardiff.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of any case of Conservative Peers, during the existence of the Stormont Parliament, complaining about Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland voting on English affairs?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not aware of any such complaint. None has ever been drawn to my attention. I believe it was my noble friend Lord Sewel who said that the answer to the West Lothian question might be similar to that given to the West Belfast question, to which my noble friend Lord Monkswell is referring.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does not the noble Lord, Lord Williams, agree, first, that Northern Ireland under the Stormont Parliament had only 70 per cent of the seats to which it would otherwise have been entitled, which would give the Scots 39 or 40 seats at Westminster and not the number they now have? Secondly, if the MSPs were to vote to ban hunting in Scotland, as has been forecast, without the English or Welsh having any say in the matter, would it not be intolerable for Scottish MPs at Westminster then to be able to vote to ban hunting in England and Wales?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the figures put by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, do not go to the principle. I understood the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Ellenborough, and his supplementary, to be based on principle. So whether Northern Ireland Members comprised 70 per cent, 100 per cent or 50 per cent does not go to the point. I do not know whether hunting will be banned by the Scottish Parliament. The noble Lord is quite right that it is within its legislative competence. The fact is that we have come to a different constitutional settlement in the context of devolution. The Scottish people voted very substantially in favour of it. The Welsh people also voted in favour of it.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain, in his enthusiasm for devolution, the logic which permits Scots MPs to vote on English matters when the same English MPs cannot vote on some of the Scottish matters?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am an enthusiast for devolution. I believe that if one takes a courageous breath and sees the consequences of over-centralisation, which was remarked upon by many Scottish Peers in this House as well as by many Welsh Peers, one will realise that that is the way ahead. I cannot pretend that any constitutional settlement will be of perfect intellectual symmetry, in the same way as I am unable to find any perfect intellectual symmetry about the continuation of the hereditary peerage.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, as someone who was born in the Rhondda Valley, and is therefore Welsh, can my noble friend say, if it is right that Scottishness should be represented through a Scottish Parliament and Welshness through a Welsh Assembly, why Englishness should not be represented through an English Parliament? Should we not put that to the English people by way of a referendum?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have not detected any enormous movement of public opinion in favour of an English Parliament. The present Leader of the Conservative Party floated it as a question, but he never offered the answer and he does not seem to be asking the question any more. It is only right that the interests of Rhondda émigrés should be properly looked after and I believe that they are being properly and scrupulously attended to.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, can the Minister give an undertaking that no legislation which has passed all its stages in your Lordships' House and the other place can then be delayed by any requirement of the Scottish or Welsh Parliaments, and that this House and the other place are sovereign in that respect?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness that the sovereignty of this Parliament remains intact. That has been said on many occasions. As I answered in response to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, a few days ago, administrative arrangements will be required to be made by virtue of memorandums of understanding and concordats, all of which were abundantly discussed when the Government of Wales Bill and the Scotland Bill were going through.