Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Dunne.)
It is a great pleasure to serve, as always, under your Gower chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate for a number of reasons. It gives me the chance to reflect on an issue that was important in the 10 years that I spent as a territorial Minister in both the Wales Office and the Northern Ireland Office. In the case of Northern Ireland, my job was to oversee the talks that led to the establishment of the Assembly and the Executive. In Wales, I worked with the Welsh Assembly in the first decade of its life. I have, therefore, a particular personal interest in this issue.
Secondly, the Government, it seems—I am not quite sure that I have seen the detail; I am certain that the Minister will enlighten us later—have called for a commission to look at constitutional issues, and specifically the West Lothian question. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) makes his winding-up speech, he can tell us about the nature of that commission—who will sit on it; when it will meet; whether its recommendations are likely to be binding; whether, although this would be unusual, it will be consensual—and all the details that surround the issue.
Thirdly, the constitutional issues that have affected Wales as a consequence of the Government’s policies have had little chance of being debated in the House of Commons. Those issues affecting Wales—the loss of its Members of Parliament and other issues—did not reach the stage of being debated on the Floor of the House, and as you will know, Mr Caton, we were refused a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to discuss those important issues of constitutional change.
On the consensual nature of the commission, what hope does my right hon. Friend hold out that it will be consensual, bearing in mind the constitutional changes of the past eight months, including the alternative vote, which is simply to please the Liberals, and the equalisation of seats, which is simply to please the Tories?
None. The Welsh dimension is important, but the West Lothian question affects Northern Ireland and Scotland as well. The issue is of particular interest to Welsh Members because, as the Chamber will know, a few weeks ago the referendum result in Wales was a decisive vote in favour of increased powers and the right of the Assembly to pass its own legislation. Of course, the West Lothian question was being debated and discussed well before that.
I have quite significant sympathy with elements of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, particularly as so many of the Welsh-related issues in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill were not even debated in the House, which was highly regrettable. Equally, surely he must understand that one of the problems with the West Lothian question is the idea of over-representation of particular parts of the UK. Does he feel that it is sustainable for Wales to be so massively over-represented in the United Kingdom Parliament, given its population? Does he feel that it would be wrong to have a reduction on a pro rata basis, to ensure that all parts of the UK were equally represented in this place?
I do not think that Wales is over-represented. I think that in the House of Commons, Wales is represented differently from England, as are Scotland and Northern Ireland. I will come to that in a moment, because the issue of how Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland exist constitutionally within a United Kingdom is very important. That is why I think that Wales’s current representation is right. When the next election comes—assuming that it will be in four or more years’ time—we will have the lowest number of MPs in Wales since 1832. The hon. Gentleman may recall that in the referendums on devolution in 1997 in Scotland and in Wales, part of the settlement on which the Welsh and Scottish people voted was the retention of the number of MPs for both Scotland and Wales. That was in order to ensure that there was proper representation within the Union. By that I mean decent representation, with advice being heard; I am not necessarily talking about numbers, though of course if there are more, there is a better voice.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that there is an equally deeply felt concern in England? Not only is there a devolved settlement that gives the Scots a Parliament, and Northern Ireland and Wales an Assembly with additional powers, but there is a relative over-representation, in the sense of fewer constituents for MPs. Does he not see that there is one leg—a rather important leg—of the United Kingdom that feels very much under-represented and unloved, and that that is one of the reasons why the West Lothian question is becoming more high-profile in England?
It is one hell of a leg, actually, in terms of its size. That is the point; 85% of MPs, 85% of the population, and 85% of the resources spent on public services in the United Kingdom are English. The voices of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, within that enormous big brother, have to be heard, because that is the strength of the Union. I am a unionist with a small “u”; I believe that the Union should be maintained, but it is best maintained by recognising the diversity of our countries and regions within the United Kingdom. A disproportionate loss in Wales of a quarter of our MPs in one fell swoop will, in my view, affect the efficacy and significance of the Union.
No, I do not accept that for one second, because the Union is not an union of shires. The Union is a union of countries and regions: the Province of Northern Ireland, the old Kingdom of Scotland and the old Principality of Wales make up the Union, together with England. I will come to that in a second. The problem of England is difficult—I have no doubt about that—but the maintenance of proper representation, weighted differently for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, helps to maintain that Union. I will come on to the issue of weight in a moment, because on the one hand the Government argue that there should be equal weight for Members of Parliament, but on the other, when we are elected, they argue that we have different weights in the House of Commons.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the resounding yes vote in the recent referendum showed that the people of Wales have accepted devolution and are very happy for the Welsh Assembly to have more powers, and that the process is irreversible? Would it not be possible, if we are looking at a future system for the United Kingdom, to have a system that would embrace not only independent Parliaments in Wales and Scotland, but, possibly, a newly forged link with the Republic of Ireland?
Yes, indeed. I very much accept my hon. Friend’s point about the result of the referendum. Devolution is unquestionably here to stay. People accept that devolution is the best way to deal with the issues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
The issue that affects us at the moment, with regard to the West Lothian question, is the so-called English question—the question of English issues. Should Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs vote on what are termed to be specifically English issues in this place? I maintain that there are no such things as absolutely English issues. In the first instance, the money that comes to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is decided by Parliament, which is overwhelmingly English—85% of MPs are English. I quote, for the convenience of hon. Members, the Kilbrandon commission, which met, as many will know, in the 1970s:
“any issue at Westminster involving expenditure of public money is of course of consequence to all parts of the UK, since it may affect the level of taxation and indirectly influences the level of a region’s own expenditure”.
Every time the Barnett formula is used, in each public spending round, the amount reached depends on the amount of money spent in England on public services that are devolved to the other countries. If health spending in England goes up, or education spending in England goes down, that has complete consequences for the budgets of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Financially, there is no such thing as an English issue—they are British issues.
On that point, would the right hon. Gentleman accept that English constituencies feel that there is great unfairness? We feel under-represented but over-taxed. For example, we wonder why we are subsidising university education for Scottish pupils, and free prescriptions.
The whole business of the devolution settlement is that devolved areas can decide what they spend their money on. It could equally be argued, incidentally, if one lived in north-east England, the midlands or the north-west, and if one were to divide England into regions, that certain regions do better than others. That is a matter not for today’s debate, but for future financial policy. I merely say that when the Barnett formula is applied to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is applied on the basis of whether spending in England goes up or down.
May I add a further complication to my right hon. Friend’s argument? He knows that I represent a Welsh border constituency. One third of my constituents use the Countess of Chester hospital in England; 400 of my constituents work at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port, which is supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; Crewe station and the airports at Manchester and Liverpool serve my constituency; constituents go to Chester university and West Cheshire college. Am I not to have a vote or a voice on those things on behalf of my constituents?
I apologise for the fact that I have to leave in a moment to chair the Welsh Affairs Committee. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me this opportunity to say, as a proud Welshman and a Unionist, and in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who made the very point that I wanted to make, that we cannot possibly have a situation where Welsh MPs can tell the English what to do with their health service and education, but English MPs cannot have any say over what goes on in Wales. Surely the answer for all Unionists across the United Kingdom is to give the English their own Parliament, with powers similar to those of the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments, and have some kind of a federal structure to deal with everything else that matters to the UK.
The issue of whether England, by which I mean English regions—I shall come to that in a second—should have its own regional governments is a different matter. That is, ultimately, the answer to the question. Incidentally, I say this to the hon. Gentleman, who is leaving: I recently read a quotation from a senior Conservative, who said in the 1960s, in a discussion on the West Lothian question—it was not called that at the time—that
“every Member of the House of Commons is equal with every other Member of the House of Commons.”
That was Peter Thorneycroft, who was then the shadow Attorney-General. He was the Member of Parliament for Monmouth, so that will be of interest to this hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). His party had a different view of such things in those days, but I will come to that later.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) mentioned cross-border issues.
On that point, my constituents are in the opposite position to those of the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson): they live in England, but many use public services in Wales, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). Some of them live in England, and have their general practitioner in England, but are registered in Wales. They are subject to the Welsh national health service, the policies of which are set by the Welsh Assembly Government, but they have no democratic say at all about those policies.
Of course they do not, but they sometimes get the benefit. There was a time when people from the Minister’s constituency were able to come to Chepstow to claim free prescriptions, although I believe that that has been stopped. I agree with him that cross-border matters are particularly complicated in our part of England and Wales. It is not quite the same on the Scottish border, because very few people live alongside it. However, on the Welsh border, in both the south and the north, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn referred, it is an issue, and the Minister also makes that point. If we start trying to disentangle all of this, we would get into an awful muddle as to who does what, and who votes on what.
Policies developed in England have implications for the rest of the United Kingdom. Look at student fees, for example. When we are elected, we are elected as MPs for our constituencies, but we are also elected to represent the UK as a whole. We represent the UK in the sense that we take decisions that affect the whole of the UK, not just our own constituencies. Also, who is to define what is an English issue? I rather fancy that that would put the Speaker of the House of Commons in a difficult position.
The right hon. Gentleman has touched on the idea that perhaps we need to move, in time, towards some sort of federal structure, and I do not disagree with that, but the contributions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and the Minister go to the heart of the point, particularly on the health issue. Ultimately, it is a fiction that we have a national health service in the UK. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have four separate national health services, one for each of the four constituent parts of the UK. Therein is one of our key problems. Ultimately, we have to be a little more open with the public at large about how that structure operates. It is to a large extent inconsistent, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) points out, but it is not enough simply for us to say that we put the UK’s interests first.
There are issues around transport and policing in London on which I, as a London MP, have very little say, and I feel uneasy about that, to a certain extent. I feel uneasy about speaking on some of those issues, given the devolution to the London government. That is not an entire devolution, in the way that it is for the right hon. Gentleman; he does not represent a single person on health matters, because they have been entirely devolved to the Welsh Assembly.
But I do represent people on health matters because of decisions made by the British Government on health spending. As I said earlier, if they put spending up, that has a direct consequence for the people of Wales: their spending will go down. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn referred to cross-border implications; the English health service is important to Welsh Members because of those implications.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) that I voted on the Bill to set up the London authority. I also voted on issues that affected only Scotland before devolution, and all of us could vote on matters affecting Northern Ireland. There were times when those decisions were highly controversial, such as when the poll tax was introduced in Scotland. That was done on the basis of English MPs agreeing to it, but we had to accept that the principle of British MPs voting on British issues was still important, however disagreeable we thought it might be.
Northern Ireland is a good example, because it had its own devolved system from the early ’20s to the ’60s. The Stormont Parliament dealt with all the issues for which it was responsible—education, health and so on—but Northern Ireland MPs still had a say and a vote on matters that affected England, Scotland and Wales. Indeed, it was when Harold Wilson complained in the ’60s that although steel nationalisation was not a matter that affected Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Members were voting on it, that the Conservative party pointed out that all Members in the House of Commons were equal, in terms of their constitutional rights.
Another problem is that of creating two classes of MPs. I quote again from Kilbrandon:
“in our view, therefore, all Members of Parliament, whether or not they come from regions with their own legislative assemblies, must have the same rights of participation in the business of the House of Commons”.
No European country has two-tier MPs. The nearest country to us in terms of asymmetrical devolution is Spain. I asked the Library to have a look at that situation, and it assured me that all Spanish MPs have exactly the same rights in their Parliament as we do in ours, despite the fact that virtually every aspect of domestic policy is heavily devolved to parts of Spain such as the Basque country and Catalonia.
There would be a problem—the hon. Member for Monmouth has left—if we were to accept two classes of MPs, and if Welsh Members could not vote on English issues, whatever they might be. The UK Parliament is in danger of becoming an English Parliament, and that is very dangerous. What about the House of Lords? This has never been an issue, but it may vote on anything, including matters on which Welsh Members of Parliament could not.
The biggest single issue, however, is that when I vote, as a citizen of the United Kingdom who happens to live in Wales, I vote on the policies of the parties as they affect the United Kingdom, but as a Welsh Member of Parliament, I vote on issues that affect, for example, the English health service. That happens in Scotland. All that cannot be disentangled. What would happen if there were restrictions on Members of Parliament and a Government could not carry a majority on English issues, but could on United Kingdom issues? When a potential Prime Minister goes to the palace, having won a United Kingdom general election, does the Queen ask whether they have a majority in England? That is the problem, because there would be a constitutional mess that we have never previously experienced.
I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s argument with great attention, and agree with much of it, but the key issue is that the real change in governance in Wales was voted on by the whole House of Commons, including all English MPs, and they presumably understood the implications of the decision.
Presumably they did, but when English, Scottish and Northern Ireland Members of Parliament voted for the Welsh settlement, they voted for something that was put to the people in 1997: first, that there would be a devolved Assembly; secondly, that there would be the same number of Members of Parliament; and, thirdly, the issue of whether Welsh Members of Parliament were not able to vote on certain issues in the House of Commons was specifically excluded. People in Wales, Scotland and indeed Northern Ireland voted in referendums that in no way denigrated the power or responsibilities of their Member of Parliament.
I am listening with interest to the right hon. Gentleman, but he and other Welsh MPs underestimate the resentment in England that has been referred to, which is growing. I shall give one small example on the point that he was making. I forget the year of the legislation on tuition fees—it was in the late 1990s—but he knows as well as I do that English MPs voted against the introduction of tuition fees in England, and that Bill applied only to England. It came in only because of the votes of Scottish MPs—[Interruption.] It is true. I am sorry, but the majority of English MPs voted against tuition fees.
The argument could be made on other issues, such as the poll tax. People in Scotland, who were soon to have their Parliament, deeply resented that; it was something that they did not want. Another issue that caused resentment in Wales—I see no way out of it without English regional government—is the Olympics, which are being held in London. There is great dissatisfaction in Wales about the fact that a huge amount of money is being spent on something in London that has no impact on Wales.
Whatever the rights or wrongs, a lot of money that would have come to Wales did not, because it went to the London Olympics. I am not saying that that is good or bad; I am merely pointing out that there was disagreement in Wales. That will always happen. It could be argued, for example, that the southern part of England during the 1960s and 1970s, and recently, voted for more Conservative MPs than Labour or Liberal Democrat MPs. They could feel aggrieved that their part of England has been done down by a Labour Government for whom they did not vote. That is the nature of the United Kingdom legislature, and we cannot change that.
The right hon. Gentleman must accept that it was precisely that resentment in reverse that led to the devolution settlement. In the run-up to the 1997 election, his party recognised that 18 years of Conservative rule had dismayed many people in Scotland and Wales, and that is why we went down the devolution route. He cannot have it both ways. That was an important part of the momentum that led to the devolution settlement that we have today.
I think that is probably right, and that was reflected in the referendum result in Wales. People preferred decisions affecting their lives to be taken in Cardiff instead of Westminster, but that was certainly not the only reason for devolution. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted it for various reasons, and people voted accordingly.
At the end of the day, the Government changed their mind, and the Conservative party changed its mind over the years, partly because of such arguments. After all, the Conservatives have only one Member of Parliament in Scotland, eight in Wales and none in Northern Ireland. Is the Conservative party still a Unionist party? I sometimes doubt it. I also sometimes doubt whether, if there were a majority of Conservatives in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it would have the same appetite for change. I am sorry about that, because the Conservative party has a long and proud tradition in its own right of protecting the Union, but that is not so now. I sometimes wonder whether it would prefer Wales and Scotland to go their own ways. That would be a dangerous step, particularly in view of the Prime Minister’s respect agenda for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although I am not convinced that that agenda would be respectful if the powers, responsibilities and duties of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Members of Parliament were removed. I sincerely hope that the Government will rethink the issue, because it could imperil our constitution, weaken the Union, and do a great disservice to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I shall speak briefly, because I know that many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing it, because it is important, and such constitutional issues are close to all our hearts. There are no easy solutions.
A major issue would have blown up after the last general election—the right hon. Gentleman alluded to this—if the Conservatives had tried to form a minority Administration. The coalition now has 12 MPs in Scotland, whereas the Conservative party alone has only a single MP, and has won only three contests in total in the last four general elections. The West Lothian issue would have come much more to the fore, and perhaps that would have been good thing.
I hope that the Minister will say a little about what the Government are planning to do in this regard. The past nine months have been a period of substantial constitutional change, and I share many of the reservations on the Opposition Benches, as my voting record shows. I abstained on Second and Third Readings of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill, but I voted against the Government on some occasions. I was uneasy about the Bill’s being seen as slightly partisan along the lines that the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. I was one of three Conservative MPs who voted to retain the overall number of constituencies at 650, although I would try to equalise them, and we are now moving towards that.
We should consider the whole constitutional issue much more broadly, and it is regrettable that we are making significant changes to the House of Commons when we all know in our hearts that this rapid pace of change will not be represented in any of the changes that will be presented to the House of Lords. There is much speculation that the Deputy Prime Minister, particularly if the AV vote does not go the way he wants, will be given the House of Lords issue and rush ahead with it in the second half of the year. I think we all know that not only is there division in the House of Commons, there is probably rather less division that we would like in the House of Lords, and I suspect that many life peers on both sides will want to retain their position, and will stall on any fundamental reforms.
I shall explain what I would like, which is a pipe dream at the moment, but touches on solving some of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman pointed out.
The hon. Gentleman seems to measure his party’s support in Wales and Scotland by the number of MPs it has. In two of the last four general elections, the Conservative party had 20% of the vote in Wales without a single MP. Would he not be better engaged in proving that first-past-the-post is a rotten, out-of-date electoral system, and campaigning for AV to obtain justice for his party?
However much the hon. Gentleman would like to tempt me in that direction, I will not go down that path as it does not apply to today’s debate. However, he makes a serious point. In many ways, devolution was the saving of the Conservative party in Wales in the immediate aftermath of 1997, or at least after 1999 with the Welsh Assembly elections. We now have a stalwart group of Welsh MPs, roughly one quarter of whom are present today—that is until the boundaries change. [Laughter.] I will not be unkind to my colleagues. The Minister is blanching at the prospect of a cross-border Welsh-English seat if some people have their way.
Thankfully, I do not think it is possible with the legislation that has been carefully put into place.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will say just a few words about what I consider would be the ideal situation. It is very much a pipe dream and an ideal. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said in his earlier contribution. We need to move towards the idea of an English Parliament. We do not need a whole lot more politicians—I hasten to add—but I would like to see all parts of the United Kingdom come under a federal umbrella, with identical powers for the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English Parliaments. There would also be the United Kingdom Parliament into which Members of the constituent parts would organise themselves on a pro rata basis. The United Kingdom Parliament would look at bigger strategic economic issues such as foreign affairs and defence. Many things that are already taken for granted in Wales and Scotland, such as policies on transport, health and a whole range of issues that are dealt with through the Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, would be tackled at national level. That is important because a huge amount of resentment is building up in England about what is seen as an unfair arrangement. Having a Conservative-led Government has probably helped to assuage that in the short term, but I fear that sense of resentment will become stronger as we go forward.
The hon. Gentleman presents a measured and characteristically sensible argument. Does he agree that England is a large country containing very disparate regions? I was born in the north-east of England, which in many respects has more in common with Wales than with Essex. Therefore, the type of targeted health policy that makes sense in Wales would not make sense in England because the needs of the various regions are so different that they could not be adequately dealt with by an English Parliament.
There may be something in what the hon. Gentleman says. I was describing my ideal, but I recognise the chief concern that, unlike any other federation, having a single group that contains 85% of the land mass or population, and its Members, would present some difficulties. The Federal Republic of Germany was set up as a post-war construct. Even after the reintegration of East Germany in 1990, there were essentially smaller units. There are particular areas of power—for example, Bavaria is strong due to historical factors and is a powerful Land, and North-Rhine Westphalia is the big industrial heartland, but even the smaller states have an important role to play. Safeguards exist in the United States of America in that each state has two Senate seats, irrespective of size. That means that states work closely together despite great disparities in size and economic power. I accept that point, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, coming from the north-east, there is not much love or great affinity between that region and the area of the United Kingdom immediately to the north. By the same token, when the people of the north-east had the opportunity some seven years ago to sign up for their own government, that move was overwhelmingly defeated. It had been anticipated that that region would have been the most likely to go down the route of a devolved English Government.
I think the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. Does he agree that the major problems we have had with devolution are because we have never looked at it from a constitutional point of view? Perhaps there is an argument for some sort of written constitution with a Bill of Rights and a clear separation of powers.
There is very much an argument for that. It is not particularly a Conservative party idea, but I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The nub of his point is correct. We have tended to look at devolution as a political settlement. In 1997, after 18 years of Conservative rule from which the Scots and Welsh felt disfranchised, political momentum allowed devolution to go ahead in a way that would not have happened 20 years earlier.
If the logic of the Conservative party—not necessarily the hon. Gentleman’s point of view—is that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should not be allowed to vote on health and education issues that affect London, should that logic be carried forward to London MPs who have the Assembly?
I think it must be to an extent. As I have said, I feel slightly uneasy about issues of policing and transportation. In the dim and distant past when I was on the Front Bench of my party, I was asked to be a transport spokesman. Because of this issue I did not feel able to take up such a role, and I was offered something else instead. It is an issue, although it is a more byzantine and mixed situation. The Home Secretary still has overall control of London policing—
One would not necessarily know it from articles in The Daily Telegraph from the past 24 hours, but it is a slightly more complicated situation and therein lies part of the difficulty.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about these issues. From my point of view—this is my individual point of view, rather than that of my party—it is regrettable that we have not looked at all issues concerning the constitution so as to try and obtain a relatively logical patchwork. I accept that historical analysis of such matters means that logic is often thrown out of the window. The worry is that we have moved ahead with breakneck speed in a way that will have a big impact on the House of Commons and affect our relationship with our constituents and within our countries. The House of Lords has not been part and parcel of that, and 117 peers have been added at the same time as we needed to reduce the size of the House of Commons on cost grounds. That is illogical. We may have considerably more peers given that the coalition agreement mentions equalising the proportion of peers for each party based on the vote at the last general election. That suggests there will be another couple of hundred peers, and some older Members of the House of Lords are very hacked off at the idea of not getting a seat in their own Chamber. It is regrettable that we have not looked at that matter, and I hope that as part of the West Lothian question, we will look at all those constitutional issues together and try to obtain a position for the whole constitution over the years to come, including an analysis of the separation of powers referred to by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans).
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) for securing this important debate. Despite the chuckles that I detected from Government Front Benchers, there has been a lack of opportunity to talk about these hugely important issues as they affect not only Wales, but the United Kingdom. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 that we have just seen rammed through the Commons was entirely partisan in its composition. Crucially—this point was picked up by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field)—it basically ignored the position of the House of Lords and dealt only with the House of Commons. In terms of a constitutional settlement that is a massive mistake, and these issues must be addressed. House of Lords reform will be on the political agenda, and it was a massive mistake not to consider that when looking at the number of MPs in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
The Conservative manifesto made no reference to removing the right of MPs from Wales to vote on matters relating to England. Characteristically, it made little reference to Wales and stated:
“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”
That is the nub of the issue.
Since the general election, however, Ministers have taken a different tone. We have, of course, heard about the commission that will be set up to address the West Lothian question. The Minister has stated that the commission’s work
“will need to take account of our proposals to reform the House of Lords to create a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber, the changes being made to the way this House does business and amendments to the devolution regimes, for example in the Scotland Bill presently before the House. We will make an announcement in the new year.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 822W.]
It is very unfortunate that a major constitutional Bill has gone through the House of Commons before the commission has been set up. We do not know the detail of the commission and we all hope that we will hear something about that later today. It is very much to be regretted that the House of Lords and the House of Commons are not looked at together when this issue is considered.
There has been no substantive discussion that I am aware of with Members of Parliament from Wales of whatever party about the issue. It was absolutely disgraceful that the Secretary of State for Wales refused to engage in a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee about the number of Members of Parliament in Wales under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. That showed extraordinary constitutional illiteracy, because the settlement that exists in the United Kingdom at this time is very complex. As we all know, it is partly written and partly unwritten and has been established as a result of centuries of history. It has been reached as a result of huge political events that have affected the islands that lie off Europe, including Ireland and, of course, Great Britain.
The changes that were put through, for what I believe were partisan political purposes, in the recent Bill changed that constitution without any real consent, and what was extraordinary in that context was the lack of involvement of Conservative MPs from Wales, who of course voted like turkeys approaching Christmas, but also took no substantive part in the debate. As a consequence, the views that had been recently expressed by members of the public in the general election in Wales were in effect excluded when the number of Members of Parliament in Wales was reduced by one quarter.
We all know that opportunities for Welsh Members of Parliament to discuss these matters were extremely limited if not non-existent in the Chamber. I think that I made a speech on Third Reading, but we did not get to the point of making any submissions on amendments because of the timetabling. As a consequence, there is a real sense of frustration among Members of Parliament from Wales about the matter.
The lesson that I learned is that the Conservative party has changed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen referred to the Kilbrandon review in the 1970s. There was a time when the Conservative party was the Conservative and Unionist party and did not simply represent the views of English MPs. Increasingly as I sit in the House of Commons now and listen to speeches from those on the Government Benches, I am learning—this has been evidenced again in today’s debate—that the Conservative party does not speak for the United Kingdom any more. It speaks for England. It is not driven by any wish to reach out to the peoples of Scotland and Wales.
For present purposes, I will resist that temptation because I am talking specifically about Scotland and Wales. We know that the Conservative party has done very badly in elections in Scotland since 1997 and still has only one Member of Parliament in Scotland, despite huge numbers of relaunches in that country. We know also that even last year, the share of the vote that the Conservative party secured in Wales when it ended up forming a Government with its friends the Liberal Democrats was less than it secured in 1992. It has not made the progress in Wales that it would have liked to make.
The lesson that I would have liked the Conservative party to learn from that is that it needs to reach out more to the peoples of Scotland and Wales than it has done. My view is that it has done exactly the opposite. It has withdrawn from the battlefield. We saw, for example, that the Secretary of State for Wales did not feel able to make her position clear on the recent referendum in Wales before it took place. The Prime Minister is in effect treating Scotland and Wales at the moment as a franchise—something that is given over to someone else and that does not really affect the person who gives it over. It is the political equivalent of SUBWAY.
The hon. Gentleman, in an otherwise thoughtful speech, is being a little unfair to the Conservatives in Wales. Clearly, since 1859 we have been a minority party in Wales. As the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) pointed out, we got 20% of the vote even in 1997. However, it is fair to say that the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly has worked very hard to make the Assembly work. Obviously, there has not always been agreement, because it has spent the past 12 years in one form of Opposition or another. None the less, it has made it work. The Welsh Conservative party is not only doing its best to make the Welsh Assembly work, but playing a very important part in the whole polity of Wales within the United Kingdom, so the hon. Gentleman’s criticism is rather unfair.
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point. The Welsh Conservative party may be seeking to take matters forward as far as devolution is concerned. For example, the Conservative group in the National Assembly for Wales felt able to support the recent referendum. However, the key point is that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom did not feel able to support the Conservative group in the National Assembly for Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales did not feel able to support the Conservative group in the—
Give me a moment. The Secretary of State for Wales did not feel able to support the position of the members of the Conservative group in the National Assembly for Wales. That is why they are a franchise. They are out in the wilderness as far as the national Conservative party is concerned. They are of no concern to the Conservative party based at Westminster, because that party does not take heed of any of the MPs from Wales who represent it.
Although it slightly pains me to say this, will the hon. Gentleman not accept that if he applied the 2010 election result to a political map that took account of equalisation, he would not be able to make the comments that he is making about the irrelevance of the Welsh Conservatives? We would have had a far more realistic result as a consequence, which would have forbidden him from making those slightly inaccurate comments.
I do not think that my comments are inaccurate at all. My concern is that we now have one political party that is committed to the Union and to devolution within that Union—the Labour party. The Liberal Democrats are in effect—[Interruption.] They are an irrelevance, as has been indicated from across the Chamber.
Of course, we have nationalist parties, but the Conservative party no longer seeks to reach out to the people of Wales and Scotland. I never thought I would say this, but that pains me. The Conservative party should speak up for the United Kingdom, and it is a great shame that that no longer happens.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the United Kingdom’s cohesion and unity might be helped just a little if the Prime Minister made more visits to the countries of the UK—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? He has not been to Northern Ireland since the general election.
I must confess that I am extremely surprised by that. I agree entirely.
Whatever constitutional arrangements these isles—Ireland and Great Britain—settle on, the lesson of the past hundreds of years is that we must have constitutional arrangements that work. We have an opportunity to have a measured, non-partisan debate about the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Bearing in mind the constitutional changes that have happened since 1997, there is a strong case for some kind of written settlement. There was a time when I would never have believed that I would say that, but the current flux in devolution settlements needs to be resolved so that the devolved institutions can focus on policy delivery, which is what our constituents are mainly interested in, rather than on constitutional settlements. I would therefore like to see non-partisan engagement by the Government—that has not happened to date, which I am very sorry about—on issues relating to the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The answer to the West Lothian question, if there is one, lies in regional government in England, and I speak with some knowledge of the north-east. One major reason why the devolution proposals were passed in 1997—the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was correct about this—was that there had been 18 years of Conservative Government. I am not sure that devolution would have happened if there had been a Labour Government in the period before 1997. One major reason why the north-east voted not to have an assembly was that people took the view that they had a Labour Government in London so they did not need an assembly in the north-east. If we asked people today whether they would like protection like that offered by the National Assembly for Wales extended to the north-east of England, we might get a very different answer.
The issue of regional government will come back. If we are to have a devolved settlement in the United Kingdom—we must not forget that there is a devolved institution in London—we will revisit the issue of regional government in England in due course. I know that that is unpopular among Conservative Members, but they should consider the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who noted that the Conservatives are still weak in areas in the north of the country, which is probably why they did not win the general election last year.
These are massive issues, and politicians have struggled with them not only in the past few years, but in the centuries before—as we all know, “one in, one out” defeated Gladstone. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen is a wise man, and when he says that having two classes of MP will lead to the break-up of the UK, the Minister should listen. He should speak to the Secretary of State for Wales, who should start to listen to MPs from Wales; that might help her start doing a better job.
I shall make two brief points, which have crossed my mind recently, largely because of my experience as a Minister in the Wales Office for the best part of two years in the previous Government.
The first point is that the devolution settlement is far from straightforward. It is not neat; as we say in Wales, it is not tidy. Reference has been made to the block grant, which goes exclusively from Westminster to the Assembly. The assumption is that health and education are devolved matters and are nothing to do with England, but things are not quite that straightforward. For example, even after the referendum, which gave the Assembly legislative powers in clearly defined areas, we still have English and Welsh legislation on health and education, and it is still possible to put forward Welsh clauses with the support of the UK Government.
We in Wales are also mindful of the fact that we have a large border with England. One thing that continually struck me in the Wales Office was the time devoted, quite rightly, to cross-border issues. Offa’s Dyke is not that significant or that high, and our border is more apparent than real in many ways. Cross-border issues will therefore always be significant for the UK Government in Westminster and the Welsh Assembly.
It is also important to recognise that devolution is very asymmetrical in the UK as a whole and in Wales and England. Wales is relatively small compared with England, and what happens in England inevitably has a tremendous influence on Wales. We see that even on issues that are primarily devolved, such as health and education. The debate on higher education in Wales cannot be conducted in isolation from what is happening in England, as we have seen recently. That reality cannot be denied and it will not go away.
Much, but not all, of the responsibility for the environment is devolved to the Welsh Assembly; for example, the Environment Agency in Wales is still responsible to the UK Government. That complex interface is a reality, and parliamentary processes must take account of that. Another example is the economy. Certain aspects of micro-economic intervention are devolved, but macro policy is not devolved at all. Again, what happens at a UK level has a huge impact on the Welsh economy. My first point, therefore, relates to the sheer complexity of the devolution settlement, which has not been fundamentally altered by the recent referendum result.
My second point is that devolution has certain unintended consequences. One is the frequent assumption in Whitehall and Westminster that the devolution of powers to Wales goes much further than it actually does. For example, when I was in the Wales Office, I was continually struck in the discussions that were necessary with the Home Office by what people thought the devolution settlement meant for Wales. Despite the excellent efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who was a Home Office Minister, the assumption—primarily among civil servants—was often that the Home Office did not need to bother with Wales any more, because Wales had an Assembly. The incorrect assumption was that Home Office responsibilities, including for policing, were devolved, but that is not the case. It is important to recognise that.
Following on from that, the Home Office had a tendency, which had to be corrected time and again—it is still there, but I fear that it is not being corrected—to make policy as though it applied only to England and not to Wales. Little consideration was given to how the relationship with the Welsh Assembly should develop over the foreseeable future, and there was little understanding of the particular needs of Wales. The assumption was that Wales had an Assembly so the Home Office did not have to concern itself with Wales. That is wrong, and something of which we must be mindful. That leads me to the conclusion that it is important for Welsh MPs not to be confined to certain areas, but to continue to have an influence on all legislation relating to England and Wales. Two categories of MPs would be intrinsically wrong. It would be bad for Wales and also for England.
Is it not also important, therefore, that MPs representing constituencies in England use the facilities of the Wales Office—where my hon. Friend once worked, as I did 10 years ago with my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy)—to raise Welsh issues through the Secretary of State for Wales’s office?
Yes, I think that is very important. It is necessary, in this complex mosaic of devolution in Britain, that we have a series of different relationships. Quite often the representation of English MPs to the Wales Office is indeed important. One concern I have is the lack of proactivity from the Wales Office. Increasingly people are asking—
Yes, where is she, and what is the point of the Wales Office? The Wales Office has a point; there is a need for a Secretary of State for Wales, but he or she has a job to do. That job needs to be promoted effectively, which is not being done at the moment.
I want to pick up something said by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas). As someone who passionately believes in devolution—as power should rest close to the people—and who believes in Wales and the United Kingdom, my concern is that there is almost an unholy alliance, an inadvertent alliance, between Welsh nationalism and the Conservative party. Although they might sometimes be pulling in different directions, the common ground is the break-up of the United Kingdom. The Conservative party is becoming an English party. That worries me intensely. It goes against the whole grain of history. Nevertheless, it is becoming an objective truth.
The fact is we have eight seats; the Conservative party is the second party in Wales. As the hon. Gentleman will know, only two years ago, we got more votes in the European election than the Labour party, for the first time in living memory. I do not think that there is any sense that the Welsh Conservative party wants to break away. In many ways we are very committed to the United Kingdom and to Wales.
Yes, but my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham made the important point that it spoke volumes when the Secretary of State for Wales had no opinion in the recent referendum. That shows the attitude of the Conservative party towards Wales. At the very least, it is not interested. It does not want to know.
That brings me to the last point I wish to make. It is extremely important to have this England and Wales debate and to recognise that the United Kingdom has particularities, but there are also many things that unite us.
I cannot resist starting my contribution by responding to the extraordinary revelation by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) that the Prime Minister has not yet been to Northern Ireland. Perhaps that pays tribute and is testimony to the excellent work done by my former right hon. Friend Tony Blair in securing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Of course, many hon. Members worked over many years, if not generations, to secure that.
The debate on this question has run long in the House. I arrived only 10 months ago but, as a Welsh Member and historian, the debate was familiar and dear to my heart. However, I did not imagine that the debate would raise its head again so quickly, and would gather this degree of momentum, within a few short months of my arrival. The phrase “the West Lothian question”, coined by Tam Dalyell, has been around since the 1970s, but the question has been around a lot longer. It was inherent in Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill in 1886. The lack of representation for Irish Members addressed by that Bill was effectively the first instance that the West Lothian question was raised in legislative terms. That prompts the question why it has not been satisfactorily addressed. We can all see that there are issues relating to representation across the nations and regions of the UK.
Why has it not been addressed? Why has it been placed so often in the “too difficult” box? Is it that those issues are so fiendishly difficult that we cannot possibly address them, or that they are insoluble? I think it is not a cop-out that it has not been addressed. In some respects it is a reflection of the intelligence of this legislature, this House, in realising that certain things—given our unwritten constitution and the historical evolution of our Parliament and representation—will be imperfect, asymmetrical and untidy. To interfere with those things and seek a perfect solution is, in my view, misguided, unrepresentative of the historical evolution of our country and fundamentally problematic. I believe many hon. Members would share the view that an undesirable consequence would be the break-up, the disaggregation of Britain.
As we have heard, asymmetry is a key feature of our settlement in the UK. That should not unduly concern us, as it has been a feature of our country and others for a long period. All of our nation states in pre-modern Europe were fundamentally asymmetrical, in the nature of the division of power between legislatures, Churches and other aspects of the state. Post-Union in 1707 there has always been asymmetry. The first representation from Scotland after the Act of Union was fundamentally asymmetrical and predicated not on populations but on the relative contribution to the Exchequer of the Scots versus the English. We have subsequently moved to a position based more on relativities in respect of population, and have now taken it to its conclusion in the partisan Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. After the next election it will be based on relative population size, and that solves lots of the issues.
That is of course right. I was using shorthand and have fallen into the trap set by the Minister in so many of those debates, even when we did not get to the Welsh clauses.
Asymmetry also exists in other countries. Canada has an asymmetrical system of devolution, as has Spain. One could argue that de facto we have a federal system of sorts, a unique British federal system, but it is certainly asymmetrical. Why is the issue raising its head? Why are we so worried about it now? It has never been true that any individual Government have held a majority purely predicated on the basis of Scottish and Welsh votes. There can be no concern that political imbalances arrive by virtue of there being more Scottish Members, or having misrepresentation from Wales and Scotland. That issue has ostensibly been dealt with by the Government. I fear the headlong rush is due to opportunity, momentum and a partisan view from the Government. There is a sense that the iron is hot, the moment is right for the Tories to strike and secure electoral advantage. That underpins the decisions taken in respect of the constituencies Bill, and I fear it is driving the considerations we are looking at today.
It would be foolhardy to pursue that. History tells us that inevitably not just in this country but others, when constitutional reforms are pursued for electoral reasons and the partisan politics of one party, they fail.
That is an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) was extremely eloquent in making a persuasive case that we should be worried about pursuing constitutional changes of this magnitude—[Interruption.] On the back of an envelope, as we heard. These are deep-rooted issues, and they require deep consideration. They should not be treated in this fashion.
We have heard a lot today about resentment in the English shires, and that is a worrying position for the Tory party. It is a little Englander position. The party has spoken on a broader canvas for the whole of its history. It should reflect on that and offer leadership to the country. It should not be driven by English nationalism.
It is always a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing this debate.
It is particularly interesting that the West Lothian question is being debated without the benefit of advice from Scottish Members of Parliament. The Liberal Democrats were here briefly, and three Conservative Members joined the debate briefly and then left. The level of passion and excitement that some Conservative Members say that there is on the subject is not quite as evident as they suggest. It is interesting that it took a Welsh Member of Parliament to bring the matter before the House. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), for Caerphilly (Mr David), and for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) on their important contributions to the debate.
Although many people think that Welsh MPs have been attending Parliament since 1542, it is worth bearing in mind that Wales had representation before then—but only in the shape of four bishops, who attended from the very first Parliament. In 1327, 24 Members of Parliament from north Wales were invited to attend, but only from the north. They were to attend the Parliament that was meant to depose Edward II, but because Isabella thought that they might vote the wrong way, half of them were arrested and kept in captivity. They were not allowed to attend Parliament, which seems to be rather the sort of attitude that the Government now hope to advance. As we have heard, Scottish MPs arrived in 1707 and Irish MPs in 1801, although with the creation of the Irish Free State the number changed.
Two contradictory political forces are at work, not only in British politics but elsewhere in the world. The first is globalisation, in that every street has the same sort of shops, we all see the same images on television and, broadly speaking, everyone has similar experiences. As a result, people regularly say that they do not want a postcode lottery. They resent the fact that one town may be able to get a drug on the NHS that is not available in other parts of the country. We were reminded earlier that tuition fees are not being imposed in Wales because of the decision by Welsh Assembly Government, but that they are being hiked up to £9,000 in England. The second is this: people resent the postcode lottery, but at the same time a passionate desire is pulling in the other direction; people want much more local decision making, and want to be able to decide what happens to the configuration of local services. In the end, one of the biggest problems is the pushmi-pullyu force that we are seeing in British politics.
I admit that there is concern in England about what seems to be the unfairness of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Members being able to vote on matters that substantially affect England, but English Members not being able to vote on matters that affect only Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. I say to those who want to go down the route of change that that is a meretricious argument. In this context, all that glisters is not gold. For a start, it is difficult to decide precisely what is England-only legislation.
The Minister will know that I have used this example before, but it is an important one. The Health Act 2006 was going to introduce a ban on smoking in public places, among other things. When it was being debated, I remember saying to a Welsh group of Labour MPs and then in the Chamber that if we voted in a particular way it would mean that clubs and pubs in Wales would not have the opportunity to make special rooms available for smokers. Everybody disagreed with me; the Clerks disagreed, and the Speaker disagreed, but in the end I was proved right. That is a problem when trying to advance legislation; all too often, the complexity with which it is drafted means that it may seem to be an England-only matter when, in truth, there is a real debate to be had. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, if the Speaker decided what was England-only legislation, there would be a danger of bringing the Speaker into party political debate—into debating the substance of how to advance the legislation.
We could instead choose another route, and multiply the number of Bills. However, when drafting, we would have to be rigorous in ensuring that we never allowed a single clause that related to Wales or Scotland, or that had financial implications of any kind. To take up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, any financial implication is an implication for the whole of the UK, so any legislation with financial implications must by definition be UK legislation. If we wanted to draft legislation solely for England, we would have to have extra Bills that were Wales-only, Scotland-only and Northern Ireland-only. The multiplication in that process would be a real problem.
The core concern for many English voters is this: the hon. Gentleman referred to health, but he does not speak for any of his constituents in Rhondda on the subject because health is a devolved matter, yet he is able to influence decisions that are made throughout England. Health, of course, is a particularly incendiary problem because of the whole idea of a national health service. The concern of many English voters is not so much that people in Wales have the opportunity for a broader range of services and free prescriptions, but the perception that English taxpayers are footing the bill.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a fair man, so I hope that he will explain to his constituents that it is not quite as simple as that. I know that the vast majority of our constituents could not describe the present constitutional settlement. As a result of devolution, they could not say who is in charge of policing, or who is in charge of this, that or the other element of environmental policy. A case in point is that the terms and conditions of GPs are not a devolved responsibility. When decisions are made about what GPs do in England, Welsh Members have to be able to vote because implications for Wales will follow from them. If the Speaker had to decide that Welsh Members could not speak in a debate, there would be a terrible row. That would be a problem.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have a few more points to make. We could see a vast multiplication in the number of Bills, with many more Second Readings of minor Bills that affected only specific parts of the country. I suppose one could then say that if a piece of legislation was not on a devolved matter but affected only Wales, only Welsh MPs should be able to vote on it. That is the logic of the argument of those who say that English legislation should be voted on only by English MPs. The danger is the effect on Government; a complicated Venn diagram would be needed to show who are the Government on any particular subject. We would have England-only legislation; England and Wales-only legislation; England, Wales and Scotland legislation; and England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland legislation, and a different set of people would be voting on each sort. There would be at least five versions of the Government of the United Kingdom. That is potentially problematic and could be dangerous.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen wisely referred to Welsh peers. Would one suddenly decide that Welsh peers should not be able to vote? How does one decide what constitutes a Welsh peer? It is difficult enough deciding what nationality the Secretary of State for Wales is. At a recent reception held at the Foreign Office, I gather that the Secretary of State for Wales made a little speech. As the Bahraini ambassador was saying thank you, he said, “It’s great finally to discover, Cheryl, after all the years that I’ve known you, that you’re Welsh”—and he is a diplomat.
She was not clear about it until she became Secretary of State for Wales. The final point is the effect on Parliament. There have been times when there have been different categories of Members of Parliament. In particular, the burgesses and knights of the 13th century occasionally sat separately because they were able to secure different grants from the Crown. However, that has not happened since the 13th century. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said—others have alluded to this—no other country in the world has different categories of Members of Parliament. The confusion and difficulty that such a system would lead to would be very dramatic.
The Government have said that they will set up a commission to consider the issue. I hope that that commission will be as interesting as the one that was set up in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998. Many of us would like to buy tickets to sit in and watch those meetings, as there are people on it with completely and utterly diametrically opposed views. When the Minister clarifies what he is doing about the commission, which the Secretary of State for Wales has said will be in place by the end of this year, I hope that he will assure us that people with diametrically opposed views will be on it, so that we see absolutely no progress on the matter.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing the debate, as it allows us to kick around some of the issues. However, the debate was, as I suspected it would be when I saw the cast of characters in front of me, a little repetitious of the debate that we had on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. Perhaps that does not apply to the right hon. Gentleman, but it certainly does to one or two others.
The history of the issue goes back a long way. I will not repeat it, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) did at least mention Scotland; he referred to the origins of the West Lothian question, and the fact that the phrase was coined by the then Member of Parliament for that constituency. Given the cast of characters here today, and the fact that Wales is so well represented, I am tempted to use the description that my right hon. Friend, the very excellent Secretary of State for Wales, has sometimes used, and to call it the West Clwydian question.
I should just say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that my hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), had said that they were not able to stay for the whole debate because they were serving on Select Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes is on the Health Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth does an excellent job chairing the Welsh Affairs Committee.
I hear reports of his excellent chairmanship. The right hon. Member for Torfaen talked about the commission, and I will come to that at the end of my remarks. A number of Members talked about the settlement that we reached in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. As I have said many times, it was not partisan; it was about treating every single part of the United Kingdom in the same way to ensure that each had the exact number of seats for the number of electors they have. There were many who said that because of devolution, we should ensure that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had fewer seats in this House per head of the electorate, but that was something that the Government did not want to do; we wanted to ensure that we treated each part of the United Kingdom—Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England—in exactly the same way, and that is what we have done in legislation. We have been very fair and even-handed.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Welsh Grand Committee. He should be aware that the hon. Member for Rhondda thinks that the Welsh Grand Committee is a Welsh grandstanding Committee. When we were debating the Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill in the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Rhondda said:
“The truth is that, all too often, the Welsh Grand Committee has been a pretty futile body.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 638.]
Given that that is the view of Labour’s official spokesman, I am amazed that hon. Members made so much fuss about whether the Welsh Grand Committee could discuss the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. I drew the remarks of the hon. Member for Rhondda to the attention of the Secretary of State, and very interesting she found them.
The point is simply that Welsh MPs did not have the opportunity to discuss the issues, or any of the amendments, in the main Chamber. It would not have been difficult for the Secretary of State for Wales to have allowed a Welsh Grand Committee to take place, so that we could discuss the issues.
I sat through all the debates on the 2011 Act, and of the 40 MPs who spoke on Second Reading, a large number were Welsh Members of Parliament. Although we did not have as long to spend on the groups of amendments as we would have liked, we spent a long time talking about the Bill and its effects on Wales. Welsh MPs spoke for a great deal of time, and I had tremendous pleasure in listening to the arguments that they put forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) drew our attention to the over-representation of Wales. That is something that many people in England—not Conservative Members of Parliament but members of the public in England—resented, and we sorted that out in the 2011 Act. We have dealt with every member of the United Kingdom in exactly the same way and treated every part fairly.
I will not give way, because I have only five minutes to deal with all the issues that have been raised. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who is no longer in his place, referred to the fact that a number of his constituents living in Wales use English public services. He said that he should have a say in those services. The point that I made in my intervention was that many of my constituents have to use public services, such as the health service, in Wales. They have no say over how those are set up, because those policy decisions are made by the Welsh Assembly Government.
In my experience as a constituency MP, the protocol does not work well. The cross-border issues, which, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen said, are much more important between England and Wales than they are between England and Scotland because of the way in which the population is distributed, were not very well thought through when the devolution settlement was arrived at. Many things do not work very well across borders. The experience of my constituents is that the English-Welsh border has become more of a real barrier since devolution than it was before. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) referred to that issue when he asked whether English MPs knew what they were voting for. I am not sure that they did, because the cross-border issues were not very well thought through.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen asked—at least he was fair enough to ask the question; one or two other Members put it as a statement—whether the Conservative party was still a Unionist party. It absolutely is; it is the Conservative and Unionist party. We were the only party that contested seats in all four parts of the United Kingdom. It is fair to say that our experience of contesting seats in Northern Ireland did not go as well as we had hoped, but we did contest seats in all four parts. We are a Unionist party, and we want to keep the Union together. Indeed, that is why we want to tackle the West Lothian question. Some commentators believe that any threat or damage to the United Kingdom would stem from the resentment of English voters—not MPs—so it is important to deal with the issues to keep the United Kingdom together.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out what would happen if we had a United Kingdom Government who did not have a majority in England but insisted on governing as if they did. Given that we have a devolution settlement in Wales and Scotland, the resentment that would ensue could have the effect that the right hon. Member for Torfaen fears.
This debate shows the complexity of the issue. A number of Members leapt into potential solutions, mainly focusing on what the Conservative party had set out before the election. Of course, the two coalition parties come at the issue from different angles. Unusually, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster may find the Liberal Democrat federal solution more to his liking. The Conservative party had a different approach. Our agreed solution is to get the commission to examine the issue so that we can try to reach a thoughtful and sensible conclusion. We are thinking about the composition, scope and remit of that commission. Once we have finished setting that out, we will announce it to the House.
Yes, this year. I have experience of setting up such a commission; in a written statement, I announced the very excellent commission on a Bill of Rights, which has a very well-qualified team of people. It will make considerable progress on that issue and on reform of the European Court.
We will announce the composition of the commission. The right hon. Member for Torfaen referred to the importance of the House of Lords; we will shortly publish our proposals and a draft Bill on House of Lords reform. Once they are published, we will set out our plans for the commission on the West Lothian question. This was an important debate that highlighted the complexities and challenges of the problem, and for that the right hon. Gentleman should be thanked.