With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Command Paper on the implications of devolution for England, which the Government publish today. The House will recall that on 19 September my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a commission, chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin, to take forward the commitments to further devolution in Scotland made by all three UK pro-Union parties during the referendum campaign. On 27 November, after the publication of the Smith commission’s report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced to the House that draft legislation to implement its recommendations would be prepared by 25 January, and presented in a Bill to Parliament following the general election. The Prime Minister also said that a new and fair settlement for Scotland must be accompanied by an equivalent settlement for all parts of the United Kingdom.
This is a fundamental issue of fairness for all the people of the United Kingdom. Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have the opportunity to have a bigger say over theirs. The Wales Bill has completed its final stages in Parliament, and the Secretary of State for Wales is leading a cross-party process to move towards a fair and lasting devolution settlement for Wales. The Northern Ireland Secretary is hosting talks on a number of issues, including reforms to make the devolved institutions work more effectively. Depending on progress, in particular putting the Executive’s finances on a sustainable long-term footing, the Government stand ready to introduce legislation to devolve corporation tax, with a view to seeing it on the statute book during this Parliament.
Today’s Command Paper covers proposals on decentralisation within England and proposals on English votes on English laws. It sets out the position of each of the coalition parties, just as the Command Paper on Scotland did for three parties. We invited the Labour party to submit its own proposals for publication, but it declined to do so. The Secretary of State for Scotland has been able to work on a cross-party basis. The talks held by the Secretary of State for Wales have been on a cross-party basis. It is only on matters concerning England that the leadership of the Opposition are hostile to cross-party talks. However, the contribution to our thinking by leaders of local authorities, including those from the Labour party, has been welcome and constructive.
There has been a significant shift in where power resides in the United Kingdom in recent years. Since 2010, the Government have undertaken the most radical programme of decentralisation within England in a generation. In addition to the significant new powers for local communities, there are now five combined authorities, 15 directly elected local authority mayors, a metro mayor in London, and plans for a metro mayor to be elected for Greater Manchester in 2017. The regional growth fund, growth deals and growing places fund have been made available to all local areas. This summer, the Government set out plans to create a northern powerhouse and consulted on Northern Futures. Taken together with what we are doing on science and transport infrastructure, this Government have the most ambitious and substantial plan for the north of England of any Government in decades.
Both parties of the coalition wish to continue this major progress towards decentralisation of power in England, and their ideas are set out in the Command Paper. In the Command Paper, the Liberal Democrats call for a process of devolution on demand to be delivered through an English devolution-enabling Bill, under which areas would be able to demand powers from Westminster and Whitehall from a menu of options. This would include many powers devolved to the Welsh Assembly, although the exact powers available would be subject to cross-government confirmation, and the UK Government would retain a list of reserved powers. In order to claim powers, a given area would need to demonstrate that it met tests on geography, population, competence, local democratic mandate, a fair electoral system, and a transparent and accountable governance structure.
For our part, the Conservative party wishes in the next Parliament to continue with the empowerment of neighbourhoods and parishes in England, as well as seeing the type of arrangements being created for Greater Manchester agreed elsewhere. This includes a large further increase in neighbourhood planning, greater local accountability and use of direct democracy, such as local referendums on local issues. In addition, Conservatives want to work with local enterprise partnerships and councils to promote jobs and growth, to help local authorities join up different public services, and to work with local business to support jobs and improve quality of life locally. We strongly believe that localism must not be a way of imposing new taxation. We believe that the Westminster Parliament is and should remain the English law-making body.
Decentralisation within England cannot on its own create fairness for England as a whole on policies decided at the UK level but which apply only in England. On the crucial question of the implications for England of devolution in the rest of the UK, fairness for all the people of the UK now requires this issue to be addressed decisively.
Devolution to other parts of the United Kingdom has created the situation in which MPs representing constituencies outside England may vote on legislation that does not affect their constituents, while English MPs are not able to influence these policies in other nations where they are devolved. Both coalition parties believe that this so-called West Lothian question needs to be addressed and have put forward their proposals in the Command Paper.
The Liberal Democrat party believes—[Interruption.]
At least the Liberal Democrat proposals are set out in the Command Paper, unlike any proposals from the Labour party.
The Liberal Democrat party believes that English MPs at Westminster should have a stronger voice and a veto over English-only issues. Their preferred method of addressing this would be for there to be votes for Westminster elections using the single transferable vote system. However, accepting that there is currently no cross-party consensus on this—which is certainly true—they instead propose that the composition of those serving on any new stage, such as a Grand Committee of English MPs, should reflect the votes of the electorate in England. The Liberal Democrats also believe that measures that unambiguously affect England only and are not devolved below the Westminster level should be subject to a new parliamentary stage before Third Reading or equivalent, composed of MPs proportionately representing the votes cast in England to allow them to scrutinise proposals and to employ a veto if they so wish.
The Conservative party believes that equalised constituency sizes remains necessary to fairness for all voters. We set out three options in the Command Paper for resolving the West Lothian question. All of them represent a stronger and more binding version of English votes for English laws than the work of the McKay commission, but all rest on the guiding principle set out by McKay, that
“decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England (or for England-and-Wales) should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or England-and-Wales).”
The first option, which was put forward by Lord Norton of Louth in 2000, is to reform consideration of Bills at all stages. All stages of legislation relating only to England, or only to England and Wales, would be determined by MPs from England or from England and Wales. The key advantage of this proposal is its simplicity and the absence of any need for any new stages in the legislative process.
The second option is to reform the amending stages of Bills, as proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in 2008. Under this proposal all amending stages of legislation relating only to England, or only to England and Wales, would be determined by MPs from England and Wales. Committees would be in proportion to party strength in those countries. The key advantage of this proposal is that it allows MPs from England, or from England and Wales, to have the decisive say over the content of legislation while not excluding other MPs from other stages and not introducing any new stages to the legislative process.
The third and final option is to introduce a reformed Committee stage and legislative consent motion, providing an effective veto. Under this option, the Committee stage of legislation relating only to England, or only to England and Wales, would be considered only by MPs from those parts of the United Kingdom. Report stage would be taken as normal by all MPs. An English Grand Committee would then vote after Report, but prior to Third Reading, on a legislative consent motion. English, or English and Welsh, MPs would therefore be able to grant their consent or veto a Bill, or relevant parts of it. Such decisions would have the same status as those of the Scottish Parliament on devolved matters. The key advantage of this proposal is that it would give English, or English and Welsh, MPs a crucial say over the content of legislation and a secure veto over its passing while not excluding other MPs from its consideration in the full House of Commons.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats invite comment and views on all the options in the Command Paper—[Interruption.] We await the views of the Opposition. For hundreds of years, the constitutional arrangements of the UK have evolved successfully through taking account of the needs in each century and decade for the giving or withholding of consent. The pursuit of devolution in recent years has been based on the importance of establishing the consent of parts of the UK for the policies particular to them. The next stage of our constitutional evolution must involve that principle of consent being applied to all parts of the UK.
Whichever option is ultimately decided upon must be clear, decisive and effective in producing fairness for the whole United Kingdom. The Government encourage debate so that this matter can be fully considered and resolved for the long-term strength of the United Kingdom. It is an issue that too many people have avoided for too long, and that can no longer be put aside.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. September’s referendum was momentous because of its fantastic turnout and the decisive way in which the Scottish people voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and also because of the way in which it unleashed a devolutionary vigour up and down the country. We are a party with an unequalled record on devolution, and this is a debate that Labour embraces and seeks to lead. We welcome Westminster further releasing its grip on the levers that run this country. I hope that, despite the Prime Minister’s 7 am jitters on the morning after the referendum, Members on both sides of the House will welcome the fact that, through the Smith commission, we are delivering on the vow to the Scottish people.
This is only the beginning of the change we need to make to the way the country is run. In England, cities and towns are demanding a greater say in the running of their affairs. Labour has responded to those demands and made a commitment to introducing an English devolution Act in our first Queen’s Speech. This will devolve skills, transport and economic development. In Wales, we will take forward the proposals of the Silk commission for further devolution, and place Welsh devolution on the same legal footing as that for Scotland.
It is also right that we should look at how Parliament works, as more power is shifted away from Westminster. We need a democratically elected senate of the nations and regions to replace the House of Lords. And, yes, we need to consider the ways in which English MPs—or English and Welsh MPs—can have a greater say on legislation that affects only England, or England and Wales.
But what we must not do, only months after the Scottish people voted to keep our kingdom united, is allow the division of our country by the back door. Nothing we do should jeopardise the future of the Union. Last year, the Government commission led by Sir William McKay looked at that very issue. Its report included the option of a change in the way legislation is dealt with at Westminster. It would involve a Committee stage made up only of English MPs, who would scrutinise and amend legislation that applied only to England. We should consider Sir William’s approach to an English— or English and Welsh—Committee stage, because it is right that English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, should have a key role in considering such legislation. We will study the Command Paper published today by the Government, but our criterion would be not what is in the interest of the Conservative party but what is in the interest of our country. Uniting our country is more important than uniting the Tory party. Ultimately, the way in which we bring about constitutional reform has to change. The old “Westminster knows best” approach will not wash any more.
Labour, like the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and others, is prepared to put aside tribalism and put its faith in a constitutional convention to determine a bold, new way of delivering political reform. The convention will not just be made up of elected representatives; it will give members of the public the loudest voice. That would encourage the debate that the Leader of the House talked about in his statement. The convention should consider the McKay commission approach of an English Committee stage. We hope that the Conservative party will also support the constitutional convention approach, helping us to achieve the cross-party consensus that the convention idea deserves.
On the back of the statement I have a number of questions for the Leader of the House. Does he genuinely believe that politicians cooking up deals behind closed doors is still the best way to go about long-lasting constitutional reform? Does he agree that for reform to be successful there needs to be consensus? Therefore, what are his specific objections to a people-led constitutional convention? We are all agreed that change is needed when it comes to laws applying only to England, or to England and Wales. But as the Command Paper shows, there are several options available. What are his objections to a constitutional convention deciding on the best option available, rather than partisan politicians? Labour is proposing to devolve more than £30 billion to the cities and counties of England. Do the Government support that? If the Conservative party cares about a stronger democratic voice for England, why is it so opposed to introducing democracy in the House of Lords? Given that the House of Lords is dominated by politicians from south-east England, do the Government agree that it is time for a democratic second Chamber, drawn from the nations and regions of the United Kingdom?
When it comes to constitutional change, we must consider the unintended consequences of our actions and think through the way changes are interrelated and interdependent. There should be no more backroom stitch-ups.
There is clearly a little bit of common ground, in that across the House we are determined to implement the recommendations of the Smith commission and to meet the commitments made in the Scottish referendum. As many of us have often made clear, that is not conditional on any of these other considerations or deliberations. Certainly that is common ground. The right hon. Gentleman did say that the Command Paper should be studied; that is certainly common ground.
There, perhaps, it comes to an end, because the right hon. Gentleman’s attempt to suggest that the Labour party was embracing and attempting to lead this debate is at the risible end of the scale of parliamentary statements. Saying that Labour has responded to cities and towns demanding greater say over their affairs when, for 13 years, those rights and powers were not given to the cities and towns of England is extraordinary.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about deliberations behind closed doors. The reason we have published options for consultation today is so there can be a wide debate and everybody’s views can be taken into account. But the people who have taken part in the deliberations have included the Labour leaders of many local authorities. I have welcomed into my office to discuss these things the Labour leaders of Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Liverpool. It is not that this process is out of touch with local authority leaders in the country; it is that Labour Front Benchers are out of touch with their own local authority leaders. They have performed the remarkable feat in politics of being out of touch with themselves in this process, with part of their party willing to engage and other parts determined not to, hoping that this will go away.
We have achieved something in terms of the Opposition’s deliberations, in that they have now said that they are open to the idea of Committee stages of Bills being dealt with by English, or English and Welsh, MPs. That is drawn from the McKay commission. But as the right hon. Gentleman knows, McKay presented a range of options, including that. We believe on this side of the House that as further devolution is now taking place to Scotland, it is necessary to have something stronger and more binding than the McKay commission recommended, which is why the addition of legislative consent motions is an idea put forward by both coalition parties.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the upper House. I remind him that legislation could have been enacted in this Parliament to reform the House of Lords, had the Labour party been prepared to help get such legislation through.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about a constitutional convention. The Command Paper sets out the arguments on a constitutional convention and the Government are open to ideas on that—but a constitutional convention cannot be an excuse for delay on what needs doing now in the British constitution. No one is arguing that the Smith commission recommendations should be delayed in order to wait for a constitutional convention. No one is arguing that the work on the Silk commission, and the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, should be delayed for a constitutional convention. Similarly the resolution of the issue on English votes and English laws cannot be delayed for a constitutional convention. That must be resolved and these are the options for resolving it.
England expects English votes for English issues. We expect simplicity and justice now: no ifs, no buts, no committee limitations, no tricks. Give us what we want. We have waited 15 years for this. Will he now join me in speaking for England?
Yes, for the whole of the United Kingdom, I hope, including England. My right hon. Friend has made a strong case for a long time that this issue needs to be resolved, in his view through advocating a particular option. But any of the options presented in this Command Paper would provide a substantial change in our arrangements and an effective veto for English Members over matters that affect only England, which I think is what he means by speaking for England.
First, may I give the Leader of the House a spot of advice? He should not go on too much about the Conservatives’ record on devolution. When he was leader of the Opposition, his policy was to oppose devolution to Scotland and to Wales and a Mayor of London.
On a more consensual note, does he accept that the fundamental problem is that England is so dominant within the Union of the United Kingdom? We have to be very careful about the way in which we proceed. I welcome the endorsement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) of what is in the McKay commission, which provides a way through that is similar to the proposal from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). Does the Leader of the House accept that, to some extent, this is a bigger problem in theory than in practice? My recollection of the last 35 years is that, in practice, the Government of the day of the Union have also had a majority of English MPs in this House. Will he therefore, as a contribution to this debate, ensure that there is published a list of legislation that, in the judgment of officials or of himself, would not have gone through this House if it had been endorsed only by English or by English and Welsh MPs?
Yes, it would help everyone to have that analysis. The right hon. Gentleman is right: this should be thought about in a way that respects the fact that England is such a dominant proportion of the UK as a whole. That is why we are not setting out here plans for an English Parliament equivalent to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly. These are various forms of plans to ensure that English consent is signified, or not, to legislation that has a “separate and distinct” effect for England, in the words of the McKay commission. That is an example of treating this sensitively and proportionately and respecting the overall nature of the UK. I will certainly seek to provide to the House the analysis that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the great majority of occasions in the post-war world, there has not been a party difference between an English majority and a UK majority. There might be occasions nevertheless where even such Parliaments produced different results on issues that relate only to England. I will certainly have such an analysis published.
Where there are clearly devolved functions, Scottish and other MPs from devolved parts of the United Kingdom have no justification whatever to vote on exclusively English matters—and the voters get this. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that this matter is dealt with in the near future by amendment of our Standing Orders as I proposed, and not by legislation—thereby avoiding interference by the courts. Will he do this?
There is a very strong case for these matters to be dealt with by Standing Orders. In the consultation we have had so far, some have made the case for a piece of legislation such as a “Statute of the Union”, but that brings the disadvantage of bringing in judicial considerations. There is a very good case for what my hon. Friend suggests, and when we are ready to advance a single option, I hope it will be possible to debate it here. Indeed, I hope the House will be able to vote on it, having due regard to my hon. Friend’s point.
In the light of the contribution from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), perhaps the Leader of the House as a reasonable man would reaffirm that our constitution does not belong to any individual political party or any individual Government. Secondly, does he accept that the history of constitutional change over recent years has not exactly been one that we would wish to emulate. In view of the alternative vote or the shambles we saw over the House of Lords proposals, would it not be sensible to take a deep breath and address these issues for the long term in a way that I believe the right hon. Gentleman would agree with if we met after 7 May next year in genuine debate outside this House?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that these matters do not belong to any one party or any one part of the United Kingdom. That is why we brought forward this Command Paper on a cross-party basis. I regret the fact that the Opposition did not want to supply their ideas and proposals to be considered on that cross-party basis. There will be continuing opportunities to do so, however, and we have set out a number of options in order to facilitate debate on them. Let us hear the argument about all the options; then the House can consider them together exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says.
I very much welcome the statement made today and the progress made so far. Does the Leader of the House agree that fairness has to be at the centre—fairness not only to England as a whole, but to English voters—and that the proportional element is of vital significance? Does he also agree that the absence of any proposals from the Labour party makes a proper comparison of these matters very difficult?
It is about fairness, and I think that issue is now strongly felt by people across the United Kingdom, and most intensely in recent months by people in England. The issue must be addressed and visibly addressed; it is dangerous for the UK for it not to be addressed. On the issue of proportionality, of course we have a different view within the coalition. We have discussed electoral reform for many years and had a referendum on it, which produced a very clear outcome. We have a different view within the coalition on that, but the principle of establishing English votes on English laws is one on which we in the coalition can agree.
Does the Leader of the House accept that 23 million people—more than voted Conservative and Labour combined—did not vote at the last election; that 10 weeks ago we came within 400,000 votes of the Union dissolving; and that a right-wing party is now coming in at 15% in current polling? Does he accept that the people are saying, “It’s broken; we ought to fix it”? Does he accept, too, that failure to include a comprehensive English devolution settlement based on the vehicle of independent local government and to substitute it with a minor issue of moving around the green benches of the Titanic on English votes for English laws just does not meet the historic need put to the right hon. Gentleman to do this job of putting forward a Cabinet Committee on devolution—not EVEL. Has he not missed that historic opportunity?
I agree with a good deal of what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his remarks, and I am grateful to his Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for its input so far and its discussion of all these issues. This is partly about decentralisation and devolution to local government in England. However, I have seen nothing to suggest that that will address the problem here in this House where laws are made with some Members able to vote on things outside their own constituencies and other Members not able to do the same. That is why we have to make sure that, in addition to decentralisation, we address that further issue here as well.
I thank my right hon. Friend for today’s statement because of the democratic deficit that exists. I ask Opposition Members to imagine what they would think if we English Members of Parliament were to sit on the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament and vote on their issues. I am sure they would find that equally galling. I caution my right hon. Friend about taking the advice of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). It is no good saying that we should just look at the historical facts, because we cannot anticipate what may come up in the future that would need a veto from English Members of Parliament on English matters.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point. It will always be valuable to look at the historical record, but we cannot forecast the composition of future Parliaments, or indeed the issues they debate. Irrespective of issues and party considerations, we have to try to put in place arrangements that are fair to the whole of the United Kingdom—including England.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I never expected to hear such a load of rubbish from such a normally sensible person? It is inappropriate to call it a dog’s breakfast because any sensible dog would turn up its nose at it! The principle ought to be inviolable that the vote of every Member of this House should be equal on all issues that come before it. I give notice to the leadership of both sides that I shall vote against any other proposal whoever puts it forward, and including a Labour Government. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Well, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) just made the case that it is broke. The right hon. Gentleman may prefer different solutions from mine, but as I say, some of his hon. Friends are advocating that it is broke. The right hon. Gentleman has to understand that there is not an equality between Members of Parliament now because, of course, what we are able to vote on is already different as a result of devolution. That is the point that he is not taking into consideration. We all take due note of his concern and his opposition to any of these proposals, but it will not be possible to suppress and avoid this debate. This issue has to be resolved.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposals to rebalance the constitution and to put right an injustice to England. Does he recall that 15 years ago the Procedure Committee unanimously recommended changes to our procedures, since when we have had endless debates here and numerous reports have been published, culminating in McKay 18 months ago. Nothing is being rushed, but with the imminent transfer of more powers to the Scottish Parliament, is it not now urgent to address this issue in the remainder of this Parliament?
Yes, it is; I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with him. This issue, as he points out, has been discussed for many, many years—from the recommendations of the commission on strengthening Parliament in 2000 and for the last 14 years. Two of the three options we are putting forward have been discussed for many years—from 2000 and then again from 2008—while the other is based on a stronger version of the McKay recommendations. It is now time for us to make decisions about these issues and to do so in the coming months.
I cannot help but wonder whether the once great Conservative and Unionist party understands its own notions of Unionism any more. It certainly does not understand federalism, although it is now drifting towards it and idealising it. Is the Leader of the House seriously saying that he wants to reform the way in which we vote in the House of Commons and leave the House of Lords untouched—or are we going to have English Lords for English laws?
Personally, I have always been in favour of House of Lords reform—radical House of Lords reform—but I believe that linking that issue to this issue of the implications for devolution of England is a recipe for delaying it for a very long time. In fact, I suspect that that is why the Labour party wants to link this issue to reform of the upper House. It is, however, an issue that must be dealt with on its own merits.
At the beginning of his statement, my right hon. Friend said that commitments to further devolution of Scotland had been made by all three pro-Union parties during the referendum campaign. Those commitments were not approved by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. There are many Members on both sides of the House who want a wholesale rather than a piecemeal solution and who want a swift solution, but who also believe that the processes should be concurrent and not consecutive.
I also believe that they should be concurrent. The commitment is to legislation at the beginning of the next Parliament to implement the recommendations of the Smith commission, and it will be a commitment met, I believe, by whoever wins the general election. I hope that then, before then or by then, decisions will be made on the implications of devolution for England, so that the processes will indeed be concurrent.
The Leader of the House will of course know that the Scottish National party does not vote on English-only issues. [Hon. Members: “You did last night.”] We think that that is quite an easy principle to observe, and if the Leader of the House had bothered to pick up the phone, we could have told him how it could be done. Will he assure me that any legislation will not be tied, will not be conditional, will not be in tandem, and will not be concurrent with any consideration of more powers for the Scottish Parliament?
I respect the fact that the Scottish National party does not usually vote on such issues, although I think that it breaks that self-imposed rule now and again. [Laughter.] I was putting it politely. However, there is nothing conditional about any of these proposals. We have made it clear time and again—the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and, I believe, the Leader of the Opposition have made it clear—that the implementation of the Smith commission proposals is not linked to any other constitutional change in any other part of the United Kingdom. Of course we can express the wish, on our part, that we will deal with the issues concurrently, but they are not conditional and not tied.
Any change in the statutory functions of English local government that involved an associated reduction in the local government grant would, of course, have Barnett consequentials, How does the Leader of the House intend to reconcile the understandable view that those would be English-only laws with the continued operation of the Barnett formula?
My hon. Friend is aware of the commitment to the Barnett formula, but he is also aware that as tax-raising powers are devolved to Scotland, that will become less relevant over time. He is right to suggest that the level of local government finance in England has consequential effects on other parts of the United Kingdom, but the distribution of local government finance within England does not have such consequential effects, and a strong case can be made for the distribution of such finance within England to require the consent of English Members of Parliament.
Does the Leader of the House accept that the sense of disillusionment with the over-centralisation of our politics and economy in London and the south-east is as keenly felt in regions such as the south-west of England as it is in Scotland? What the people of cities like mine want is more meaningful control over their own affairs, not some political stitch-up by Westminster politicians which is being rushed in this way by the right hon. Gentleman.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said, apart from the partisan element of it. People do want more control over their own affairs. That is the way of the 21st century, and the Government are delivering it, although there is much more to do. The new general power of competence for local authorities, the devolving of planning functions to neighbourhoods, community rights to bid, local referendums, business rate retention by local authorities, city deals and growth deals are all in operation now. My Government colleagues and I want those policies to continue, so that there can be a greater degree of truly local control.
I welcome the statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that England is more than a clutch of regions, and that, as such, it is entitled to its own devolution? In respect of the point made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), we are not suggesting the establishment of an English Executive, and that in itself is a restraint on English devolution. Is it not right to give as much autonomy as possible to English MPs to make English laws? I personally think that there is a very strong case for the Norton proposals.
My hon. and learned Friend has himself made a very strong case. He is right to say that England is more than a collection of regions. That is one of many reasons why a federal solution is not available to us in this context, and why it is important for the proper rights of the representatives—the parliamentary representatives —of England to be enhanced.
The Leader of the House referred to the voting powers of Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament, although not, I think, to those of Northern Ireland Members. As more powers are devolved to London and combined authorities in England, will MPs from those areas continue to have full voting rights on all matters, including devolved matters, in the House as well?
As I made clear in my statement, it is certainly the view of the Conservative party that law-making powers should reside here at Westminster, for England. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they have put forward a different concept that can include the devolution of legislative power within England, but I am not advancing that cause. Laws that relate to England would continue to be made in the House of Commons, and, according to our options, would require the consent of English Members of Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong to equate the positions of Wales and Scotland? Does he, as a former Secretary of State for Wales himself, acknowledge that a great many people in Wales rely heavily on services that are delivered in England, and that it would be wholly wrong for the representatives of those people to be denied a voice on issues that so clearly concern them?
Some of the options that are presented in the Command Paper provide opportunities to deal with that difficulty. Option 3, for instance, would allow Members of Parliament from the rest of the United Kingdom to continue to vote and speak on all issues, although they would require the consent of the English MPs to legislate on English matters. In respect of a small number of cross-border issues involving a strong structural dependence—health care in Wales is one such instance—there is a strong case for a wide definition of what constitutes an English matter, so that others can be involved.
This issue is not new to the House of Commons. As the Leader of the House will recall, the Conservatives have not won a general election since 1992. I have been hearing this debate ever since 1992, and it has been Conservative policy to use a veto to diminish the influence of Scottish Members of Parliament ever since 1992. However, I am concerned less about the problems that the Tories are having with UKIP and so forth than about the impact that these proposals would have on the Barnett formula. We need to hear a clear denial that they do not provide a back entrance to its destruction. If we take away the right of Scottish Members to vote on issues that determine the Barnett formula, we shall be seeking to destroy it.
Order. The Leader of the House has given very succinct replies, but we must have shorter questions; otherwise, some Members will not be able to ask their questions, and will be disenchanted. That will be perfectly avoidable if Members show a bit of consideration for each other.
I will give even shorter answers, Mr Speaker. What we are talking about is not some veto over Scotland, but a potential veto over what is decided in England by English Members of Parliament. I hope that the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Mr Hood) will bear that in mind.
There is nothing about the Barnett formula in these proposals. That is a separate consideration. The commitment to the formula was made clear during the referendum campaign, and nothing in these proposals changes that debate and that commitment.
Does my right hon. Friend not find it extraordinary that those who shouted loudest for extra powers in Wales and Scotland are now doing as much as they possibly can to prevent powers of a similar nature from being given to England? As a proud Welshman and a proud Unionist, may I urge him to proceed with these proposals as quickly as possible before the general election, so that the English can be given the voice that they deserve?
Yes, I absolutely agree. I think there is sometimes a desire on some parts of the Opposition Benches to try to suppress debate on this issue and hope that nobody will talk about it over the coming months or years. That will not be a successful approach. People across England now expect this issue to be addressed.
The tragedy is that we are so close to a lasting settlement for England and the Union. We could agree on devolution in England, we could agree on an elected second Chamber, and we could also clearly agree on changes here. Does the Leader of the House not understand that his partisan and highly political desire to rush to an early vote in the Westminster club on just one element puts at risk the constitutional change this country needs?
I do not think it is open to the Labour party to opt out of a cross-party process and accuse the rest of us of being partisan. This is a Command Paper on which two parties have participated. There would have been no harm at all in the Labour party putting its own proposals into this Command Paper, and the reason we have set out a number of proposals is so that there can be a debate, not a rush to a single proposal, and there can be consultation about those proposals. I look forward to the comments on these options from the right hon. Gentleman.
Why has my right hon. Friend rejected the simple and straightforward solution precedented in the Government of Ireland Act, what happened in Stormont and, indeed, in the Scotland Act itself, that if a part of the United Kingdom has less power for its own MPs, those MPs should be reduced in number? Would that not make it possible to ensure a better solution? It also means that the reduced number of Scottish MPs would at least have full voting rights in this House.
There is of course a precedent for that in relation to Northern Ireland in the past. [Hon. Members: “And Scotland.”] My hon. Friend is talking about a reduction below a proportionate representation in this House of Commons, and that has not been done for Scotland, to correct the hon. Members opposite. There is a precedent for that, but I do not think it is the answer to this question. When it comes to decisions about peace or war and major issues of foreign policy or economic policy for the entire United Kingdom, I think it is very important that all parts of the United Kingdom should be able to share equally in that on the basis of equal constituency sizes, which is a matter we will have to return to.
In the north-east of England, the right hon. Gentleman’s statement will sound like Tory votes for Tory laws. Without inviting him to repeat all the generalised superficial remarks contained in the Adonis report, could he say something to the House about regional policy?
Yes, indeed. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, regional policy has been pushed forward very seriously by the whole approach to city deals, local enterprise partnerships and local growth deals, and parts of the north-east are already benefiting from that. Indeed, there are city deals involving Newcastle and Teesside. So there ought to be greater opportunity for that whoever is in government in the coming years. That opportunity, however, does not resolve the issue of law making, which requires us to address issues in this House.
I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for the work he is doing to introduce EVEL—English votes for English laws. Will he ensure that the English can vote as quickly as possible, particularly to protect smaller island and rural areas from city deals and metropolitan areas like Manchester and Birmingham?
It is important that the ability to have greater powers at the local level is available to local authorities of every kind, and that that applies in rural as well as urban areas. Indeed, that is why a lot of our work has taken place at the neighbourhood and parish level. For instance, more than 1,200 parishes have now adopted a local neighbourhood plan with a local referendum, so increased localism and local decision making is available to people across England, and I hope they will make full use of that.
There are times when I have been very proud of this House rising to the great occasion, but today I feel ashamed of the House and the way it is tackling this big issue of a fundamental change in our constitution and in the basis of parliamentary sovereignty. We are inevitably going to be getting rid of the United Kingdom as a concept and a reality, and not one of my constituents has ever been consulted, and nor have the people of this country, through a proper constitutional convention or a referendum.
Discussion of a constitutional convention is in the Command Paper. We have, of course, provided an opportunity for cross-party discussion of all these issues, and I am happy to provide further opportunities. The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the issue, which is why we made every effort to ensure this could be a Command Paper issued by three parties together, with parts of it put together by three political parties. His party opted out of that; perhaps he should advise it to do differently in the future.
The principle of English votes for English laws is unassailable, particularly given now the greater devolution of powers to Scotland, but can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that there is nothing in this Command Paper that will lead to further layers of local or regional government, and that there is nothing in it that will result in extra cost to the taxpayers?
Yes, I think I can reassure my right hon. Friend about that. None of these options involves additional tiers of government and we are very clear in the proposals we are putting forward on local government and decentralisation that this is working with existing authorities, giving them greater power and giving power at the neighbourhood level. So it does not involve adding to the tiers of government, nor is it intended to add to the expense to the taxpayer.
As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, this statement is not about the Barnett formula; it is about our constitutional arrangements. The position on the Barnett formula is well known, and as tax-raising powers are devolved to Scotland, of course the Barnett formula becomes less relevant over time, as is well understood.
After spending decades debating the West Lothian question, it is difficult to see how anyone could argue that this issue is being rushed, so may I urge my right hon. Friend not to pay any heed to those who want to kick this issue into the long grass by setting up another convention to spend years looking into it? My constituents want to see action on this matter now.
My hon. Friend speaks up, as always, for his constituents. I think they do want to see action on this matter. Some of us have been talking about this for a very long time indeed, and many references from the Opposition Benches about a constitutional convention or reform to the House of Lords are designed to delay the matter indefinitely, rather than to assist in coming to a solution.
Not if done in the correct way. We are talking here about determining whether there is consent in England, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will study the Command Paper and some of the options, such as option 3, of the Conservative proposals, which talk about determining English consent for proposals that only affect England, rather than excluding MPs from other parts of the United Kingdom from each stage of the legislative process. We all have to give the necessary care to keeping the United Kingdom together.
The Leader of the House is to be commended on the work he has done to move this forward, but what representations has he had from the leaders of the shire counties, who clearly fear that if there is a transfer of power to urban centres, they will be left behind?
I take that issue very seriously, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It is possible for shire counties to join in city deals—just because they are called city deals does not mean they are only for the cities—but I will also be meeting the County Councils Network in the near future to hear its representations.
As the Leader of the House presses his version of “WesLo-min” for devo-max, does he recognise that some of us do screen ourselves out of voting on legislation that is wholly and solely English? However, many Bills here contain clauses that are varied and variable in scope. In addition, Bills that purport to be “English-only” do have implications for the base loading of the Barnett formula and others represent issues of principle or precedent such as makes them predictive legislation, not least the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which led to the expectation that a karaoke Bill would be passed through the Northern Ireland Assembly. So should people not vote on those issues here?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points and illustrates the complexity of our current arrangements; decisions about welfare payments in England of course have an immediate effect in Northern Ireland as well. Nobody is suggesting that Members of this House should be excluded from voting on matters that do affect their constituents; we are simply talking about determining whether there is English consent to proposals on matters that, in the words of McKay, have a “separate and distinct effect” for England and on England.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our overriding concern must be to preserve the United Kingdom and the sense of unity in the United Kingdom? Therefore, it should be possible to proceed with caution and by consensus to achieve that, and to persuade our Scottish friends and allies—our Scottish MPs—that they are valued Members of our Parliament but there has also to be a sense of justice for English voters.
My hon. Friend puts it very well; there has to be that sense of justice, which is why this issue has to be resolved, but we do have to take great care with it. That is why we have presented a number of options for Members from all parts of the House to react to before all of us come to a final decision on how to proceed.
May I remind the Leader of the House that the last time the Conservative party won 50% of the vote in England in a general election was in 1959 and the last time his party had a majority of English votes was in 1955, before most of us were born? The idea that a Conservative majority among MPs elected from England, which has been the case for most of that period, should determine English laws is simply his party putting party interest before the national interest, and that is why the Lib Dems do not support his proposal.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to back a variation of option 3 in the Command Paper, which is simple, could be quickly implemented, does not require a change to the legislative process and does not deny any MP the right to vote at any stage? I am talking about the double majority option, which provides an English shield and English consent on matters affecting only England.
That option is mentioned in the Command Paper as a variant of option 3, as my hon. Friend says. He and others of my hon. Friends have long put forward that proposal for a double count—the requirement for a double majority, a UK majority and an English majority, for Bills affecting England. Consulting on that proposal is part of the Command Paper’s job.
Does the Leader of the House accept that all matters put before this House involving expenditure or taxation have an impact on other parts of the UK, in terms of public borrowing, debt and the interest rates that people across these islands pay? Does that not mean that there should be no proposal to restrict the rights of Members of Parliament from Scotland to vote either on the Budget or the Finance Bill?
I do not accept that all matters of finance and expenditure affect the whole of the UK, and I gave the example earlier of the distribution of local government finance in England as something that affects only England—the same point could be made about the distribution of health spending in England. So that is not true of all matters, and one option in the Command Paper provides a vehicle, through a legislative consent motion, for English consent to be determined for rates of tax or welfare payments that might apply only in England in the future. But of course I think we all envisage that the overall macro-economic decisions of the country always remain a matter for the UK as a whole and for the whole of Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Union will be preserved only if the English want the Union too, and that means that we must move with greater speed to address this West Lothian-plus question, which has been on our backs for nearly 20 years? The proposals that he tabled show that we have the will to act, whereas the Opposition seem to have no will at all.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that; it is important not only to show that we are addressing this issue, which we are, but actually to address it. That means moving, in the coming weeks, to decide on one of these options and then that can be debated in this House and, if necessary, in the general election campaign, too.
As I indicated in a previous answer, the definition of “English matters” should be quite broad when there are matters that are structurally related across borders. Understandably, there is a particular anxiety about health services in Wales, given such a close relationship with the provision of health care in England. The cross-border treatment of those issues is something we would have to debate.
I welcome these proposals, because they address a real injustice by allowing English votes on English laws. However, another injustice is the unequal funding between different parts of England for health, education and local government. In order for English counties to have a proper say on that and for their voice to be properly heard, we need to resist Labour’s attempt to create artificial regions dominated by the big cities. May I therefore encourage my right hon. Friend to speak up for the English counties?
Yes, absolutely. As I mentioned, I look forward to discussing this point with the County Councils Network, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is very conscious of it. I reiterate that the greater freedoms and opportunities for local authorities are open to counties and rural areas, and we should encourage them to make full use of those freedoms.
The Infrastructure Bill, currently in Committee, contains clauses relating to England, to England and Wales, to Scotland and to London, and permutations of all four. Voters in the south-west will not be happy if the English solution delivers up a block vote for London and Manchester MPs, who have devolved powers. The Leader of the House did not answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) on London, so will he have another go and explain how devolved powers to London will be responded to under his proposal?
We—both of the coalition parties involved—envisage greater devolution of powers to local authorities. I mentioned that the Liberal Democrats have proposed devolution on demand, which could include legislative powers. The Conservative party regards legislative powers as remaining here in this House, so on law relating to any part of England the decision would continue to be one for all the Members of Parliament for English constituencies.
The injustice is particularly felt by my constituents 1 mile south of the Scottish border, who wish to see powers, votes and spending devolved to them in England. Does my right hon. Friend agree that after five reports over 17 years of consideration of this process, and the Labour party now opting out of the process, we should simply press on and get the resolved settlement that we all so need?
We absolutely should press on, and this Command Paper provides the foundation for doing so. This will be essential in all political parties, as all candidates will find in the coming general election that they need to address this issue, because the voters will want to know where they stand on it. Therefore, we should proceed with considerable speed in identifying the preferred option in our parties and in this House, and I look forward to doing so over the next few weeks.
London is not just a local government, but a city region. As a Greater London MP, I have no say on what the Mayor of London or the Greater London authority do with regard to transport policy, yet I do have a say on matters relating to transport and roads in the constituency of the Leader of the House. Will he explain why that anomaly is not referred to at all in either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat papers?
I have answered that question several times. Liberal Democrats propose the devolution of law-making powers to city regions or to other smaller local authority units. We are not proposing that in the Conservative party. The laws that relate to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and to mine are set in this Parliament, and it is the setting of those laws that we are discussing in this Command Paper.
My constituents feel that we should have a fair Union, which means a fair deal for England. They say that laws that apply only to England should be voted on only by English MPs, and that anyone who does not subscribe to that view does not speak up properly for England.
These proposals fundamentally breach the theory advanced by William Pitt and William Wilberforce in the Act of Union 1801, which declared that all Members of this House should be equal—whether they are on the Back Benches or Front Benches, however big their majority and whatever kind of constituency they represent. The proposals will also lead to a bifurcated Government and they will drag the Speaker, whoever they may be, into constant party political decisions about whether or not a Bill is an English-only Bill, which is why I fundamentally disagree with them. But will the Leader of the House explain why it can possibly be right for Baron Smith of Kelvin in Glasgow to be allowed to vote on legislation on which the Member of Parliament covering Kelvin in Glasgow, who is elected, will not be allowed to vote?
The answer is that Members of the other House are not elected representatives of any particular part of the country. [Interruption.] That is the answer. If the hon. Gentleman did not know the answer to that, he does not know the answer to very much. He should be careful about going into the history of the Act of Union with Ireland. He is quite right that William Pitt the Younger advocated that all Members of this House should be equal, but that is because the Irish House of Commons voted itself out of existence in 1799, and the decision was made to have a Union Parliament without any devolved Parliaments. What has happened in the past 15 years is the introduction of devolved Parliaments, so we have an entirely different situation from that prevailing in 1800.
The issue of cross-border health care, which has been mentioned on a couple of occasions, demonstrates the unfairness of the current system. I have constituents who are registered with GPs in Wales over whom there is no democratic accountability whatever. The cross-border health care issues demonstrate the unfairness of the current system and the urgent need to introduce English votes for English laws.
Instead of making allegations about our views, as the Leader of the House did in his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), could he explain why he is introducing far-reaching proposals for this House without having any reform of the House of Lords to make it more geographically representative of the nations and regions of the UK?
I am not making allegations about the Opposition’s policy; I am just wondering what it is, because there is nothing on it in the Command Paper. The point about the House of Lords is that for 103 years we have been debating in this House the reform and the further reform of the upper House without reaching a conclusion on the matter. Saying that these issues should be inextricably linked is a means for some Opposition Members to delay consideration of the implications of devolution for England and put it off for many years. The issues are not linked and must be treated on their merits.
I warmly welcome the moves towards English votes for English laws, and the sooner we can make the procedural changes necessary the better. The Leader of the House has already acknowledged the importance of local decision making, and the further we move away from Westminster, the greater the demands are for that. However, successive Governments of both sides over the years have reduced the powers of local government. Although this Government have done a great deal to improve things, will he take the opportunity that this debate presents to revitalise local government and, if necessary, to restructure it?
Revitalising local government is an important part of the Government’s approach, but we are not advocating the restructuring of local government, which has often been expensive and time-consuming. However, we are advocating giving more powers to local government, and the details of how we could do more of that over the coming years are set out in the Command Paper.
I remind the Leader of the House that devolution to Northern Ireland occurred not 20 years ago, but 95 years ago next year, and it was not without its problems. I ask him to reflect on the constitutional proposals that were made by his then hero in the 1980s which would have changed the relationships on these islands altogether. There were three proposals, and the Iron Lady rejected them with her immortal refrain, “Out, out, out!” Should that refrain not be echoed today at a proposal that appears to me as a Member of this kingdom to be more about a party political necessity than the needs of the Members of all this kingdom?
It is about not only the needs of the whole kingdom, but fairness to the voters of England and to the representatives in this House of the voters of England. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read the Command Paper and look at the options, because some of them are designed to determine whether there is English consent on English matters without excluding from those matters Members of Parliament from other parts of the United Kingdom. I will be interested to hear his views when he has considered that.
I greatly welcome the statement by the Leader of the House and the Command Paper. The enhanced settlement of devolution to Scotland and Wales inevitably means that the English question must be addressed. Does he understand the concern of the current Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire, and indeed any future Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire, that almost the entire health care delivery to that constituency is delivered in England—not a part of it, but almost all of it? It seems inconceivable that that MP would not have any say at all on those powers.
As I have already said, I very much understand that point. My hon. Friend has been very assiduous in making that argument over recent months. That is why at least one option does not exclude Members of Parliament from other parts of the United Kingdom from speaking and voting on these issues while determining whether there is English consent. It is also why we must be careful in how we define the cross-border issues, so that MPs are not unfairly excluded when there is such a strong structural relationship between the health care needs of people in parts of Wales and its provision in England.
Will the Leader of the House explain why his party in the 50 or more years that there was a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland never proposed the sort of things we are talking about today? Could it be because his party used to be the Conservative and Unionist party and today it is morphing into an English nationalist party?
No, it is because throughout that period, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there was a reduction in the number of MPs from Northern Ireland. The existence of a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland was treated in a different way in this House, by reducing the number of Westminster MPs from Northern Ireland. I do not think that he would want to advocate that now for Wales, so we have to deal with this in a different way.
It is not fair. We have debated previously in this Parliament equalising the size of constituencies, and indeed reducing the size of the House, and I believe that both proposals remain important priorities for the future. The first is very important for fairness for people casting their votes in future elections.
The Leader of the House mentioned planning. Many of my constituents believe that we have a top-down approach to planning through the national planning policy framework, which favours developers over local people. If he is serious about localism and devolution, will he support changes to the planning system that consider local people and are not just a developers charter? I suggest that he starts by looking at the excellent recommendations in the Communities and Local Government Committee report on the subject published today.
The details of the Select Committee’s report, of course, are for my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and those matters have also been debated in the House recently. I will certainly draw what the hon. Gentleman has said to the attention of ministerial colleagues. I also point out that part of what is happening with more localism in recent years is the introduction of neighbourhood plans. Over 1,200 parishes, with about 5 million people, have now adopted a neighbourhood plan. They have become a very important factor in planning decisions.
The English people should be trusted to speak for England. Devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London was led by referendums, and the early ones were not in favour. Does the Leader of the House believe that Westminster knows best when it comes to the English regions?
I think that many of the cities and regions know best, which is why we are giving them more powers and responsibilities. That is what we are seeing with the agreement with Manchester and the prospect of equivalent deals in many other parts of the country. We are trying to ensure that there is much more local decision making across the cities and regions of the country, in place of decision-making here.
The Leader of the House came here in 1989, and I came in 1992, and during my 22 years here this place has been full of anomalies. Only yesterday I was told by the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries):
“This has nothing to do with firefighters in Scotland”.—[Official Report, 15 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 1157.]
But the debate had everything to do with Scotland, as a consequence of the fact that the Scottish nationalists introduced only part of the deal required by firefighters. On that basis, is it not true that we will now have, as a result of his proposals, second-class MPs in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that there are many anomalies in how we do things in this House, although the injustice for the voters of England is now sufficiently great to be considered more than an anomaly. When it comes to deciding who votes on matters in other parts of the United Kingdom, it is English Members of Parliament who feel that they are second class. That is why we must deal with the issue. Otherwise, it will damage this Parliament and damage the United Kingdom.
Is my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) right that the Leader of the House plans to hold the Speaker responsible for determining what constitutes England-only matters and, if so, has he consulted you, Mr Speaker, on how that might work?
It is envisaged in most of the proposals that have been made for English votes for English laws that the Speaker, or some other impartial authority, would have to certify what is English or English and Welsh legislation. Of course, there are other ways of doing that, for example through a panel of Chairs or some other impartial authority. I look forward to discussing these matters with you, Mr Speaker, as I do on so many matters, and with other Members of the House.
The hon. Gentleman has waited all this time only to find that his question was asked by the Member who spoke just before him. The answer is the same. You, Mr Speaker, do not play a role in determining the policies of the Government—you have enough to do in keeping order in the House. However, where there are implications for the job of Speaker, I and other Ministers will of course wish to consult the Speaker now that we have made our proposals.
I put it to the Leader of the House that publishing the Command Paper is shutting the constitutional stable door after the horse has bolted. His own Chancellor has agreed a devolution deal with Greater Manchester. If he does not believe in English votes for English laws, why should anybody else?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Chancellor believes very strongly in English votes for English laws. He is quite right to have agreed the deal with Manchester, and we advocate in the Command Paper agreeing similar deals with other city regions so that they can have the same control over local affairs that Manchester is going to enjoy. However, that does not involve the devolution to Manchester of the legislative power of this House. The issue of English votes for English laws, therefore, must still be addressed on top of decentralisation and greater powers for areas such as Manchester.