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Constitutional and Political Reform

Volume 586: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2014

The referendum in Scotland has led to demands for political and constitutional reform across the United Kingdom, and marks a new chapter of constitutional renewal. It will start with the devolution of significant new powers to Scotland, which will establish, in effect, home rule there. The Prime Minister has asked the Leader of the House of Commons to lead a Cabinet Committee that will examine the constitutional implications of devolution across the United Kingdom, including the so-called West Lothian question. Particular attention will be paid to the decentralising of more powers away from Whitehall to communities in England. As we move towards a more federal system, we shall need to codify the devolution of labour between Westminster and the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, and set out a clear statement of the values that we all share. I believe that that can best be done through the establishment of a wide-ranging constitutional convention during the next Parliament.

Last month tens of thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds took part in a democratic election in these islands for the first time. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with Opposition Members that there is no reason whatsoever for any 16 and 17-year-old in any part of the United Kingdom to continue to be denied the right to vote by any democratic institution, and what work is he doing in the Government to ensure that that right is conferred as quickly as possible?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my party and I have long been in favour of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. I agree with him: I think that the sight of so many 16 and 17-year-olds rejoicing in exercising their votes in the referendum merely confirms and strengthens the case. However, as the hon. Gentleman also knows, that extension has not been agreed across the Government, and the debate will therefore continue.

The Scottish referendum showed the importance of actively engaging with people in determining their future. Why do the Government think it acceptable for the English to have their constitutional change and their future determined by a Cabinet Sub-Committee?

As I said earlier, any Government Committee can only put forward proposals for wider debate here and with the public. I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s implication that we should be involving the public as actively as possible. That is why—as I also said earlier—my own view is that a constitutional convention needs to be established as all the different moving pieces evolve within the United Kingdom. My strong preference is for the first step in that convention to be a public one, and for what would effectively be a citizens jury to be created, as has happened in other countries. That could get the ball rolling.

It is estimated that more than 5 million British citizens living abroad would be entitled, prima facie, to vote in next year’s general election. Why is it not one of the Government’s priorities to ensure that we increase the proportion of those who are registered? Their number is currently fewer than 16,000. Is that not shameful?

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. Of course we should be making efforts to encourage all who are entitled to vote to do so, whether they live here or elsewhere in the world.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that city deals cover only one part of the north, that most people do not live in cities and that we need a better and broader alternative for northern devolution?

It is important for my hon. Friend to be aware that although city deals were the first deals to be struck in the longer journey of devolving and decentralising powers from Whitehall to other parts of the country, they were succeeded by growth deals, which were just as significant in scale and covered all parts of the country, rural as well as urban.

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s words about the need for a constitutional convention and about 16 and 17-year-olds rejoicing at the chance to vote in the Scottish referendum. He has always been an advocate for 16 and 17-year-olds having the vote. Bearing in mind the fact that, if we are honest, MPs have nothing to do between now and May—[Interruption]—in Parliament, why does he not work with us to try to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote by the time of the next general election? It can be done this time. There is a willingness on his part, and on our side, too.

The right hon. Gentleman can speak for himself if he thinks he has nothing to do. It may be why he is pursuing other ambitions. There is quite a significant legislative agenda still to be examined and debated in this Parliament. It is an open secret that there are differences between the two parties on extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. My view—I suspect it is the same as his—is that that change will happen, but a bit more slowly than I would like.