Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the means by which the Government seeks to deliver the objectives outlined by the Leader of the House in his Statement on English Votes on English Laws.
I am exceptionally grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and to hon. Members throughout the House for the support that they have given me in bringing this matter to the Floor of the House today. It is a matter that is genuinely urgent, given the timescale that has been presented to the House by the Government, although it need not necessarily have been so. The urgency is of the Government’s own making. The matter had been under consideration already and would benefit from further mature consideration.
I would have liked to put in to speak in this debate, but I have to return at 2 o’clock to Committee to consider the Education and Adoption Bill, which I believe I would be barred from participating in under the terms of the Government’s proposals. Does not the depth of the proposals mean that we should have proper, thorough parliamentary scrutiny of these matters, rather than the proposals being railroaded through in this unconstitutional manner?
I am not entirely sure whether the hon. Gentleman is right that he would be barred from that, certainly at this point, but I can see that that is the logic of where we eventually go, although I suspect that logic might be resisted by the Government and Opposition Whips Offices because I know from my own experience that getting people to serve on such Committees is not always easy. It will be interesting to see what influence the Government business managers bring to bear on that in the fullness of time.
Is there not a further reason why we would charge the Government with haste on this issue? Many of us on the Opposition Benches—a growing number, I hope—think the impact of the Scottish referendum will be to move this House to an English Parliament, with Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That ought to be at least part of the discussion, rather than being excluded from the discussion, as the Government have done.
Rather than saying that that should be part of the discussion, I think it comes to the very heart of the discussion. I fully accept that the devolution process that was started in 1999 has created within the United Kingdom a number of anomalies. I entirely understand the concerns felt by right hon. and hon. Members representing constituencies in England, in particular. In order to address these anomalies, we need mature considered measures, instead of replacing the existing anomalies with further anomalies, as I very much fear the Government are about to do.
Surely it is true to say that discussions about future devolutionary change can go on. What is proposed is a change in the Standing Orders simply to give a veto to the representatives of the people affected. That does not lead to an English Parliament or to English initiative; it finally brings a little justice into the system. It is based on what we had in our manifesto, and it should be proceeded with quickly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, I suspect that I am more grateful than his colleagues on the Treasury Bench are, because he has nailed one point very early on: this does constitute a veto. As a federalist, I have no problem with vetoes, but if they are to be part of our parliamentary procedure we have to be prepared to have them going in different directions. The veto now being anticipated for English Members of Parliament would not be available to Scottish Members of Parliament, because they are governed by the Sewell convention and legislative consent measures. That is only the subject of a convention; it is not a veto. That is what I mean when I say that the Government, by bringing their proposal forward in this manner, risk creating further anomalies. The anomaly is one not of detail, but of fundamental constitutional principle. Were the House to bring together its collective mind, I do not doubt that we could eventually find a solution. Perhaps we would reach a compromise that was a little messy, but it is something we could reach. However, we are not going to reach that in the one day that will be offered to us to debate the changes to the Standing Orders.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not ignoring history? Scotland has had special arrangements in this House since the Victorian period. From 1948 Bills could be dealt with by the Scottish Grand Committee, and that was expanded in the 1990s, as he knows very well, and eventually Scotland ended up with its own Parliament. He cannot stop some change on the basis that it is not the final change.
I am by no means resistant to some change, and I will return to that point shortly. The hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that the Scottish Grand Committee could debate Bills, but it could not vote on or amend them. That is how Grand Committees work. They are a perfectly sensible mechanism by which debate can be conducted by those who have the most direct interest, although they are perhaps a little redundant in this age of devolution, but they are by no means an attack on the fundamental principle that once we leave the Committee Rooms and enter this Chamber we are all equal and have the same right to participate in votes.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that the biggest danger facing the Union is not Scottish nationalism, but English nationalism? If we fail to deal with English votes on English laws in a timely manner, as set out in our manifesto, which the people voted for, English nationalism will see off our Union.
I absolutely agree 100% with the hon. Gentleman. The threat comes from English nationalism. However—it pains me to say this—that English nationalism is to be found on the Treasury Bench. The Leader of the House, when he came to the Dispatch Box last week, took great pains to say that he was speaking as a Conservative and Unionist. I hate to say it, but he has brought forward something that no Unionist should. It is perfectly understandable for people in England to identify a national interest in response to a mood of Scottish nationalism forming north of the border, but the answer is not to meet it with more nationalism. The answer, I suggest, is a proper federal structure across the whole United Kingdom.
Mr Speaker, as an historian, you will know that the history of these islands is one of constitutional abnormalities. We are a nonsense, but somehow it works. It works because in this Chamber we are all equal, no matter where in the United Kingdom we come from. Therefore, to destroy that is nonsense.
This is where I will try to make some progress. I have been generous in taking interventions so far.
As I said yesterday, I want today’s debate to focus on the means by which the Government are seeking to achieve English votes for English laws, rather than the principle of English votes for English laws itself. As I have said, I am not without sympathy for the principle. I think that ultimately the solution will be for the people of England to decide what they want their constitutional future to be. Are they to have an English Parliament? If so, they should have an English Parliament, and this is the United Kingdom Parliament. Are they to have a network of regional Assemblies or something of that sort? That is a decision for the people of England, not something that we should seek to shoehorn into our Standing Orders.
My concern about what is proposed is that it is the most modest of proposals. It does not deal with the over-centralisation of power in Whitehall that blights people in England. It does not deal with the lack of proportionality. It does not deal with the fact that there is only one UK Independence party MP for 4 million votes. Those issues are also a democratic affront that require urgent consideration by those on the Treasury Bench, yet they do not seem to be attended to by the determination to introduce changes to the Standing Orders before the House rises for the summer recess.
What does the right hon. Gentleman say to my constituents who see the inherent unfairness of a situation in which he can vote on education matters affecting my constituency but I cannot vote on education matters affecting his? My constituents might quite rightly accuse him of wanting to have his porridge and eat it, and that is unfair to England.
Hopefully that is the last time I take an intervention intended for a local press release. Had the hon. Gentleman been listening, he would have heard me say a number of times already that I completely understand that point and am sympathetic to it. It is an issue that needs to be resolved by the people of England and for the people of England, but not by trashing the Union and the United Kingdom Parliament, of which we are all Members. I do not know what the ultimate solution will be, but I wish the people of England every bit as much joy in that debate as we in Scotland have had over the past 50 years. It is a debate that they must now have if we are to remain part of this family of nations.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government, by ignoring Sir William McKay’s advice and proposing to give some MPs a veto, are creating a two-tier system of MPs and attempting to create a new Parliament by the backdoor?
I am afraid that is exactly what is happening. The Government are trying to create an English Parliament within the United Kingdom Parliament, instead of doing the long and difficult thing that we had to do in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a real threat to the United Kingdom if MPs from England regard this place as an English Parliament, rather than a United Kingdom Parliament. That used to be what it meant to be a Unionist. That is why I lay the charge at those on the Treasury Bench that they risk losing the right to call themselves Unionists.
I am going to make some progress, because the range of voices heard in this debate should be as wide as possible and I want to allow as many Members as possible to make speeches.
The Government brought forward a number of supporting papers with the Leader of the House’s statement last week. They are helpful, in as much as they give some detail on the proposals, but they give no indication of what they are seeking to achieve and where this will ultimately take us. The question of the double majority was raised earlier by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart). It does constitute a veto. If we are to have a double majority, that means, in effect, that we will have two tiers of MP. We cannot have a double majority without having two tiers of MP; it is illogical nonsense to insist otherwise. Once we have crossed that threshold—crossed the constitutional Rubicon—we have to wonder where it will ultimately take us.
Is it not the case that we already have a two-tier system of MPs in Parliament—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—in that some Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies refuse to take their seats and yet are paid allowances by this Government?
Forgive me—I really do need to make some progress, or nobody else is going to get to speak.
That would be an appropriate use of the way in which the Chamber responds to issues through Standing Orders. Matters of constitutional change, by convention—and rightly so—are taken on the Floor of this House at all stages, and likewise in the other place. They are given the fullest consideration because it is understood that they become exposed only with proper debate and scrutiny.
One of the novel aspects of the proposal that the Leader of the House laid before the House last week is the extension of these matters to Finance Bills. That opens up a whole range of questions that were not answered by him at the Dispatch Box or by the papers that he placed in the Vote Office. Finance Bills are, and have been for a long time, treated differently by this House. The fact that they are considered only by this House and not by the other place is the obvious difference, but there are also differences in the way in which they are introduced and considered in a mix of time spent here on the Floor of the House and in the Committee Room upstairs.
Are not Finance Bills a classic example of the way in which our unwritten constitution has developed? We trust Governments to be careful with it and to nurture it, whereas in this process we see a Government lighting the blue touch paper on the Union and not being careful with our unwritten constitution. Should not this House say, “Take care, take time, reflect”?
I am exceedingly grateful. The problem with the proposition that the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward is that it ignores the fact that there are already two classes of functions that were passed by the United Kingdom Parliament, which created not two tiers of membership in this House but two functions as between the Scottish Parliament, with its devolved functions, and those in the United Kingdom, which have been left swinging in the wind. Does he not accept that?
I do, but the hon. Gentleman must surely accept that what is being proposed through changing Standing Orders is not an appropriate way of addressing it. As I have already said times without number, I fully accept that several anomalies have been created by devolution, starting in 1999, but the answer to that is not to trash our own procedures in this House.
No; let me make a bit of progress because I want to stay on the question of Finance Bills.
Even with the measure of devolution of some taxes—I stress “some”—I would suggest that the setting of the Government budget as a whole is, again, treated differently from the passing of legislation in individual policy areas. Will the Leader of the House explain how his proposed new system is going to work for the consideration of estimates? For example, will estimates debates continue to be a vehicle for Select Committees, and how will that work when Select Committees draw their members from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will be the case in this Parliament, as we can see from the Order Papers for today and and tomorrow?
This goes to the point that the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) made about serving on Committees. I do not doubt that the Committee concerned, with good will, and perhaps even a measure of discussion among the usual channels, could deal with this, but the anomaly has been created and as yet the Government have no answer to it. Where is this going to take us in future? How are Members of Parliament from areas of the country that exercise devolved powers going to interact with Select Committees? If the principle of veto is to be accepted, and if members of the Health Committee or the Education Committee, for example, are to be drawn only from England and Wales, I very much look forward to seeing how the Government are going to set up the Scottish Affairs and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees—good luck to them on that one.
If the principle of the veto is to work, it has to work both ways. For the Scottish Parliament, that means the end of the Sewel convention and the end of the conventional sense—the classic sense—of parliamentary sovereignty as it has been understood in this Chamber in the past, because if we give a veto to the Scottish Parliament on legislative consent motions, then that is the end of Dicey’s classic definition of sovereignty. I am not too unhappy about that—I am quite relaxed about it—but if the House is to undertake something of this sort, surely it requires more than the debate that we are being offered.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman misses the key point about this being done through Standing Orders, which is that Standing Orders can be suspended by the House in a specific instance or permanently, and that therefore the sovereignty of this House remains unaffected.
No. If we are to take this to its logical conclusion—that is to say, to give a veto to the Scottish Parliament on areas that would currently be dealt with by the Sewel convention—then that will not be reclaimed by Standing Orders; it is the end of the supreme sovereignty of this House. That is why we need a sensible, more reasoned debate for which Standing Orders will always be inadequate.
No, I am sorry—I have been generous with my time.
The logic is that we should be considering this, if it is to be considered at all, by virtue of primary legislation. I know that that brings concerns particularly to those on the Treasury Bench, and that the Leader of the House will say that it raises questions of justiciability and reviewability of decisions that would ultimately have to be taken by you, Mr Speaker.
I am grateful. Is there not a clear distinction between two things? The first is whether this should be introduced by means of Standing Orders, and the second is what procedure, or method of reflection, the House may go through in deciding how and whether to adopt it, and under what circumstances. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was drawing the House’s attention to the latter point and the apparent lack of a timetable for proper consultation on this issue.
The two propositions are not mutually exclusive. There are elements that could be capable of remedy through Standing Orders if we were to have a proper debate. The Government’s proposal goes too far, too fast. In principle, other changes may be possible, as we discussed in government before the general election. I do not completely exclude the possibility of proceeding in that way, but going as far as the Government want to us to go, and within their timescale, brings with it an attendant level of risk that I would consider to be irresponsible in these circumstances.
The last Government discussed whether the proposal could be addressed in a single Bill. If there is a will in the House to consider how it could be done, that would be a much more sensible way of doing it. The Government are saying that we should do it for a year and that it should then be reviewed by the Procedure Committee. I hold that Committee in very high esteem, but the only thing that would happen under that process is an examination of how the system had worked. It would not put a dangerous genie back in the bottle after it had been let out. I think we all know that that is the political reality.
Personally, I am quite relaxed about the use of primary legislation and the justiciability of decisions then made by Mr Speaker. I do not think that anybody in this House should be making any decision that would not stand up to judicial scrutiny. However, if that is to be the block, let us have a proper debate, because it must be possible to use primary legislation to deal with that very point. Surely it is necessary to have a proper description of the boundaries of judicial review and any proscriptions. Frankly, this House has never undertaken such an exercise. Judicial review as a body of law has been allowed to grow like Topsy, led by the judiciary itself.
I am aware that I have already taken up quite a lot of time, albeit with interventions.
Does not the presence of so many Tory Members—they are considerably greater in number today than they have been for sittings on the Scotland Bill—and the amount of animated interventions they are making indicate the need for a very full and proper debate?
I believe so. It also highlights the need for a debate that goes well beyond the walls of this Chamber. The debate needs to be conducted throughout the country and to take in not just the political parties, but the Churches, the trade unions and civic England in the widest possible sense.
No, I will not give way.
That was how we built the consensus in Scotland that then led to the creation of a Scottish Parliament. Ultimately, that is what the people of England are going to have to do. They are not entitled to use the United Kingdom Parliament as a proxy for an English Parliament.
That brings me to my final point. In Scotland last year we went through a painful process that ultimately led to the people of Scotland deciding to remain part of this United Kingdom. We did it on the basis that we are all equal participants in this Union. I made those arguments in good faith and I believed at the time that the Conservatives did so, too. It is difficult for them to sustain that proposition if they insist on proceeding in this way.
I am pleased to have a further opportunity to set out the Government’s plans for strengthening the Union by providing fairness for England.
At the centre of the plans I announced last Thursday is the concept of fairness for all four countries of our United Kingdom. Fairness requires that further devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales be accompanied by a louder voice for England at Westminster on English matters. If we are devolving tax rates to other countries of the United Kingdom—the House is currently legislating to do so—it is only fair that Members of Parliament in those constituencies affected by that change have the decisive say over any tax rates that apply in their constituencies. If Members of the Scottish Parliament are in future to decide a Scottish rate of income tax, is it actually unfair that English Members of Parliament, or English and Welsh MPs, or English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, have the decisive say over tax rates that affect their constituencies?
Not at this moment, no. We have an established method of using legislative consent motions. It is not unreasonable that we should use that same device in this House when an English-only matter affects English-only constituencies. Why does the right hon. Gentleman think that he should resist the idea of a legislative consent motion approved by English Members of Parliament on matters that affect only their constituencies?
May I take the Leader of the House back to January 2004, when Tony Blair’s Government were proposing top-up fees for English students? At the time, I was lobbied by the then Conservative Opposition and by Labour rebels, who told me that the Scottish National party should vote against that proposal on the basis that top-up fees for English students would have a knock-on effect on Scotland through the Barnett formula. Why has the Conservative party changed its mind? If these proposals go through, would I be in a position to exercise a vote on such a measure in the future?
Let me take that example and the question raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about estimates. It is not our intention that estimates be voted on by individual groups of Members. They are, and will continue to be, a matter for the United Kingdom Parliament. On the question of tuition fees, what the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) must understand is that one of the things that was not understood by those in England who were affected by that change—which, if I recall correctly, was carried by a majority of five—is that, although English MPs voted against it, it was only as a result of the votes of Scottish MPs that it was carried, but it did not apply to students in Scotland. That is a very simple example. If a measure is to be applied to a group of people in England and not in Scotland, is it really unreasonable to suggest that English Members of Parliament should have the decisive say over that change?
Is the Leader of the House not acting a bit like a male rights activist who thinks that when females get extra rights there is a zero-sum game that takes rights away from him? If Wales passes a law to give more education rights, that has no impact on England, but if a health law is passed in England it has a Barnett consequential for Wales. There is an asymmetry and it is wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to plod forward and demand these rights when this is not a zero-sum game.
Could my right hon. Friend tell me how it can possibly be right that I as a Welsh MP should be able to tell his constituents how to run their education and health service, or even why I should want to spend my time doing so? We have a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament, so is it not absolutely right that English constituents should have exactly the same right to self-determination?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have all lived with this situation for 20 years. The difference now is that we are legislating again: first for Scotland, to give significantly more powers to the Scottish Parliament, and later in this Session we shall legislate for Wales, to give significant additional powers to the Welsh Assembly. It is surely therefore right that, as part of our desire to protect our Union, we make sure that any resentment in England about the fact that those powers are not replicated there is addressed to the maximum degree.
Last night we discussed Scottish laws and whether they and Scottish powers should preside at Westminster or Holyrood. Ninety five per cent. of Scottish MPs in the House of Commons, as well as the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, want those powers to be moved to Scotland, but 500 Labour and Tory MPs who are not from Scotland walked through the Lobby and applied a veto. Why does Scotland not have a veto when the Leader of the House wants an English veto?
There are two parts to the answer. The first is that in the referendum last year the Scottish people voted to protect the Union. At the same time, we offered them a raft of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament that will enable it to take a far broader range of decisions than it could in the past. That is the difference. If we are to make that change, we must in my view address the issues raised by constituents in England who ask, “What about us?”
Does the Leader of the House not understand from this very intense debate that what he is doing is ill-prepared? If we had proper legislation, we could have pre-legislative scrutiny, consult the public and get academic experts in, but he is denying the House a full look at all the implications.
Let me make this clear for the hon. Lady. Will she explain, therefore, why last year when my predecessor invited members of her party to take part in the discussions about constitutional reform, they declined? I will not take any lessons from Labour Members about why this has all come late to them. When we published the proposals six months ago, we invited them to take part, and they ignored us. Do you know, Mr Speaker, the now acting leader of the Labour party did not even bother to respond to the letter? I will not take any lessons from them about this.
Let me cover some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, and I will then give way again.
The right hon. Gentleman’s first point was about two-tier MPs. He and other Members on the Opposition Benches are concerned that the proposals will create two tiers of MP or will impinge on the equal status of Members of Parliament. That is simply not right. All Members of Parliament are equal, and all of them will be able to continue to debate and vote on every piece of legislation passing through the House of Commons. It is simply incorrect to say that any Member of this House will be excluded from voting on or debating any piece of legislation. That is not what the reforms say: it is absolutely clear that everyone will be able to continue to participate.
The point is that if a measure affects wholly and exclusively English or English and Welsh Members of Parliament, they should have the decisive say on whether it is passed. Such a measure cannot be agreed without a majority of the United Kingdom Parliament, but nor can it be agreed without a majority of the MPs whose constituencies are affected by the change.
One of the issues that has upset me over the years, initially as a Minister and during all the time since, is the annual motion on distributing grants to English police forces and to English local authorities. They are surely examples of what should be dealt with by English MPs only.
The distribution of grants will be part of this procedure. That, like all of this, was very clearly set out in our manifesto. I know that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland’s party has not always believed in sticking to manifesto commitments, but that is precisely what we are seeking to do. We think the proposal is important—it was clear for the country to see, and the country was able to debate it—and we are sticking to that promise.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that what he is proposing is a measured response based on precedent? Over the years, we have made changes to Standing Orders to deal with Scottish Bills, for example, in the way he suggests. We have amended Standing Orders when changes have been needed over time. Is not what he is doing absolutely in the tradition of how the House of Commons deals with these matters?
That is absolutely right. Indeed, my hon. and learned Friend might like to know that those with long experience of the workings of this House, including Members of the other place who have worked in positions of authority in this one, are all united in the view that changing Standings Orders is the right way to proceed. As I made very clear in my statement last week, hon. Members may form a different view over the next 12 months. When we review these matters in 12 months’ time, I shall be very open to such views. I am very clear, however, that changing Standing Orders is the starting point.
I have the document with the proposed changes to the Standing Orders, which were suddenly presented last week. There are 22 pages of new Standing Orders. My understanding of the procedure in the debate next week is that unless the Government table a motion that allows amendments to be made to them, we will have only one chance to amend them at the end of the debate. Given that there are 22 pages of Standing Orders introducing a range of very complex things, will the Leader of the House use this opportunity to confirm that he will table a motion for next week’s debate that will allow the draft Standing Orders to be amended appropriately, rather than to allow them to be amended just once at the moment of interruption, which would be a farce?
One of the reasons for publishing the Standing Orders two weeks in advance was to give Members the opportunity to raise precisely that sort of question. I am very happy to discuss that with the hon. Lady. She has not come to my office to ask me to do so, but if she wants to I shall be happy to discuss with her after this sitting how we are going to handle that debate.
I absolutely endorse the spirit of what the Leader of the House is trying to do, but will he deal with the issue of whether we should do it by altering Standing Orders or through primary legislation? The problem with changing Standing Orders is that, as we know from experience, Governments can just suspend them on the day, without any recourse; if the changes were made in primary legislation, Governments would have to repeal the Act. Is there not therefore a stronger argument for primary legislation?
It is clear that primary legislation is one possibility. As I have said, however, the advice we have received from the Clerks and those who have been involved in overseeing the House in the past is that such changes are normally done through Standing Orders. We have sought to deal with this measure, which was in our manifesto, through Standing Orders. I made it very clear in my statement last week that if Members have a different view when we review all this in 12 months’ time, as I have committed us to do, we will look at such an issue very carefully.
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that Standing Orders are not some “obscure mechanism”, as one newspaper called them, but the means by which the House is governed on a day-to-day basis. They determine all the ways in which we operate in this House, so we are using the conventional mechanism by which the House operates. There is nothing strange about that. The question is whether we should do something different, and I am saying that we can discuss that as part of the review in 12 months’ time.
I rise to ask the right hon. Gentleman my question again, because I did not get an answer. I do not understand why he cannot give an assurance now that he will table a motion that will allow us to amend different parts of the 22 pages of draft Standing Orders, rather than have to deal with them in only one amendment. I see that he has received a note from the Box, and I hope that he can give me an answer.
As I said, I want to be as helpful to the House as possible. There will be an opportunity to debate and vote on more than one amendment to Standing Orders. It is of course up to the Speaker whether to select an amendment, but I expect amendments to be tabled and to be debated. If the hon. Lady wants to sit down with me afterwards to work out how best to handle that debate, I will be very happy to do so.
I am sorry to persist, but my understanding of the way we work is that unless the Government table a motion allowing votes on more than one of the changes to the Standing Orders at the moment of interruption, we will not have time to take other amendments. Will he undertake now, at the Dispatch Box, to table an appropriate motion so that we can amend—or, at least, attempt to amend—some of the 22 pages of changes to Standing Orders and have a vote on them at the end of the debate next week?
I believe that the Government are entitled to fulfil their manifesto commitment. What worries me is that the Union is at stake, and we have to be seen to be doing this in a very fair way. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be open to the idea of allowing extra time so that Members can debate this fully, are not be limited to speeches of just three or four minutes on a complex area and have all the time they need to table amendments and get them debated. I really think that that is in the interests of the Union and of the Government.
As I said, there will be an opportunity to table and vote on more than one amendment. I am happy to look at whether we can provide a little more time for the debate. This change is intended to fulfil our manifesto commitment, but if there is a desire among Members to have a little more time, I am happy to look at how best we can provide it.
I will make a little more progress, because a lot of people are waiting to speak.
I am reticent about using legislation, because this House currently determines its own rules and procedures, rather than the courts. The boundaries between the courts and Parliament are long established and well respected. There is a principle of mutual respect, which means that the courts will not generally challenge the means by which legislation is passed or decisions taken in Parliament. There is a strong feeling in the House that using legislation to govern our legislative process would risk opening it up to legal challenge and that ultimate authority may pass from you, Mr Speaker, to the courts. We therefore have to be immensely careful.
Parts of the processes of the House have been legislated on, but I think that it would be better to consider the issue of legislation in 12 months’ time as part of the review, when we have seen the detail of how this works and invited the Procedure Committee to look in detail at how to make it work as effectively as possible. It is important that we are careful.
So far, the Leader of the House has talked about the position of Scottish and Welsh MPs. Some of us in this House believe passionately that there should be devolution to local authority areas in England. If there was devolution to combined local authority areas in England, would it be his intention to come back with proposed changes to Standing Orders to affect the voting position of the MPs who come from those areas?
The hon. Gentleman is not taking into account the fact that what we have in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is legislative devolution—they have the power to make laws. When there is devolution in England, for example to the Mayor of London, we do not devolve the power to legislate. The Chamber that legislates for England is this one. That is why we have to ensure that within what is and must remain a United Kingdom Parliament, we offer to English or English and Welsh Members of Parliament the decisive say over matters that exclusively affect their constituencies.
This is nothing to do with the majority in an individual Parliament; it is about doing what is right. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Conservative party has a United Kingdom majority in this Parliament, so this is not about the numerical position in this Parliament, but about making sure that we can answer English constituents when they say, “You are providing additional powers to Wales and Scotland and considering devolving the right to set corporation tax to Northern Ireland, but what about us? Where do we fit in? Where is England in this new devolution settlement?” That is what we are seeking to sort out.
Because I value the strength that this Chamber brings. To take away its remit over English matters would be to devalue it. We need to ensure that there is fairness in this Parliament; we do not need to dismantle our constitution to the point where we have an English Parliament as well.
In 1997, the incoming Labour Government had devolution in their manifesto, which is similar to the position of the current Government, but there was extensive consultation before they created a Parliament and two Assemblies. What we have here is a shabby little alteration to Standing Orders. How is that suitable for the people of England, even for those who agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has to say?
The hon. Gentleman clearly did not read our manifesto and clearly did not pay attention to what took place before the election, because these proposals were published months ago and have been discussed extensively. They were also set out in fine detail in our manifesto. He is claiming that we should not be implementing our manifesto commitment. There may be other parties in this House that do not believe in fulfilling their manifesto commitments, but we do.
Let me conclude the point on double majority votes and then I will give way one more time.
We have proposed double majority votes for the consideration of Lords amendments and for other votes in which the agreement of English MPs in the whole House is required, simply to avoid the House having two Divisions, rather than one. Since we have the technology to do it in a single Division through a double majority vote, we can make things a lot easier for the workings of this House. That will be a lot more efficient than having everybody walk through the Division Lobbies twice in a row.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he is muddling up process and substance? Process is one thing, but the substance is that he wishes to strengthen the Union—something I really agree with him about—by creating a division within a Parliament that is meant to represent the Union. In that sense, the proposal is half-baked. It is neither fish nor fowl, and he should go back to the drawing board.
The Labour party has a decision to take over the next few days on whether it will back these proposals or oppose them. It is now as near an English party as anything else. If Labour Members are going to go back to their constituents, who are undoubtedly saying the same thing as my constituents and my colleagues’ constituents, and say, “When we had the chance to give you fairness in the constitutional arrangements, we said no,” then bring it on.
I want to ask the Leader of the House a very simple question. As I understand it from his proposals, the Speaker will have to adjudicate on what is an English-only Bill. Where is the definition of an English-only Bill set down? The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) raised the issue of tuition fees and its Barnett consequentials. Where in the proposals is the definition set out?
The test that will be used is very simple: is it a devolved matter or not? Health and education are devolved. If it is a devolved matter, it will be covered by the proposals. The premise is simple: given that education is a devolved matter in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and that MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland therefore cannot vote on education matters in their constituencies, they will not have the decisive say on education matters in the constituencies of English MPs.
I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. May I just explain to someone who really ought to know that many students leave Northern Ireland because we simply do not have sufficient university places? Very bright students—my constituents and the constituents of my colleagues—go to English and Welsh universities, of which I am enormously proud, having attended Aberystwyth University. Therefore, increases in tuition fees in England—so-called English laws—affect my constituents and constituents across Northern Ireland and Scotland. It is wholly untenable for the Leader of the House to claim that if education is devolved to Northern Ireland, it is an English-only matter in this place. That is completely wrong.
There has been a dilemma over tuition fees. We have a situation where an English student going to university in Scotland is liable to pay tuition fees, whereas a Scottish student is not. Indeed, a Lithuanian student going to study in Scotland is also free of fees. English Members have had no say at all in that. What we have is a constitutional anomaly. Of course, the hon. Lady cannot vote on student fees in Northern Ireland, so she is already living with an anomaly. We are trying to ensure that there is fairness for English Members of Parliament.
To pursue the point that was made by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the former leader of the Labour party, the Leader of the House indicated to me earlier that tuition fees would be a matter reserved for English MPs, but under the proposals, it is for the Speaker to certify which matters are reserved. How does the Leader of the House know, before the Speaker’s certification, that that matter will be certified, despite the Barnett consequentials that affect my constituents and many others?
If I remember rightly, I said to the right hon. Gentleman that it was an anomaly that Scottish MPs secured an increase in tuition fees in England when there was no equivalence in Scotland. Of course it is a matter for the Speaker, but the test that will be applied in the Standing Orders—against which the Speaker will make his decision—will be whether or not a matter is devolved. That is set out clearly in the Standing Orders and it is the simplest test of all.
I think that these measures are necessary. I know that they deliver to you, Mr Speaker, a challenge that you do not have at the moment, but I think you will agree that as we move towards an extra level of devolution for Scotland and Wales, and as we devolve additional tax powers to Northern Ireland, it is vital that English citizens of the United Kingdom think that the system is fair. That is what we pledged in our manifesto, and we have set it out in detail, step by step, while implementing those changes. We are keeping our promise, and those who elected us would expect nothing else.
I rise to support the motion tabled by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and I congratulate him on his successful application for this debate. Debates under Standing Order No. 24 are relatively rare and take place only in exceptional circumstances when you permit, Mr Speaker. That we are having this debate at all speaks volumes about the reckless and shoddy way that the Government have chosen to pursue their proposals on what they like to call English votes for English laws. Their partisan, self-serving solution to this question is highly controversial and divisive, and their method of introducing it is a constitutional outrage. I hope that even at this late stage they will see sense and think again.
To avoid any scintilla of doubt, the official Opposition accept that with the prospect of greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the voice of English MPs must be heard on matters that relate purely to England. That could be achieved in any number of ways, but we believe strongly that such changes would best be achieved by the widest consideration and proper consultation with all political parties and wider civil society. Cross-party support would also be desirable, and it is regrettable in the extreme that the Government have made no meaningful efforts to facilitate that. Instead, they have played narrow party politics when they should have been putting the national interest and the Union first.
Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), if we had known at the time that through a simple change to the Standing Orders, the issues that were devolved to the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament would be handed down to some makeshift English assembly or Parliament, would that have had an effect on our debates on those devolved matters? It could have resulted in a completely different outcome.
In a minute. I am trying to respond to the point that has been put to me. If the hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me a sentence or two, I promise I will give way. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) is right: devolution is a desirable process but it must be done properly if it is not to create resentment. I give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman who is eager, as always.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that rather pleasant tribute. Does she agree that this matter was raised during debates on the Scotland Bill? I spoke from the Dispatch Box where she now stands, and the issue of English votes for English laws was put forward at the time. Labour ignored it.
The devolution settlements for Wales and Scotland took time to develop and evolve, and—as I was in the middle of saying—there are clearly issues for England that we now need to consider. We consider that that issue should be properly dealt with as part of a constitutional convention that should be charged with examining how the United Kingdom is governed, in a much more profound and holistic way than the reckless and partisan fiasco with which we are currently presented. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who chose to exploit the bitterness and division created after the Scottish referendum for his own narrow electoral advantage, rather than attempt to heal the wounds that had opened up. We now have a Government who seem more interested in pursuing a partisan procedural fix than in showing any intention of keeping our Union together.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that devolution has not worked in Northern Ireland? We have different forms of devolution everywhere, and it is not working; Scotland is wanting more and more. We do not have a mechanism for looking at a long-term strategy for how we should go forward. Should we have a Committee of the House of Lords or the Commons that will look for a long-term strategy so that we get a much better way forward?
We are in a complex position, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that Northern Ireland has its own particular issues that are mixed up with the peace process. We think that we need a constitutional convention to consider where we are in the round and across the piece—including the ever-expanding House of Lords, which grows larger and larger every year, even as the Government want to cut the number of elected Members of Parliament. All that suggests that time is right for us to consider a constitutional convention.
My hon. Friend is right: we need to separate out the serious issue of how our whole constitution works together alongside devolved Assemblies and Parliaments in the United Kingdom. Is the real point that we need to discuss how the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and city regions that will get increased devolution, fit into that model?
I am in the middle of a sentence. Let me just finish answering my hon. Friend, then I will be more than happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman. Before I was so graciously interrupted, I was saying that it feels right this time—there has been so much change and so many more demands for devolution—to consider the issue as a whole and involve civil society. We should have a proper debate on that, and we certainly do not want to be involved with these procedural fixes.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her graciousness in giving way, and I apologise for intervening on her mid-sentence. Does she accept that her party bears a heavy burden of responsibility for the trials and tribulations that we face today? The Labour party was desperate to appease Scottish nationalism in 1999 and failed to address the West Lothian question posed by her former hon. Friend, Tam Dalyell, the one-time Member for West Lothian. Had Labour addressed the issue at the time, we would not be in this position today. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is proposing a simple remedy that addresses a long-standing sense of grievance in England.
I do not think the proposed remedy is simple; I think it is an abuse of process. These changes are controversial and complex and have profound implications for our constitution and for the Union. As such, they ought to be subject to proper scrutiny and consultation, but instead the Government hope to sneak them into place just before the summer recess, in one single debate and in only one Chamber of our Parliament.
They have chosen to use a procedural fix in an attempt to bring about profound constitutional change. Next week, they will seek to amend the Standing Orders of the Commons to introduce their partisan version of what they have chosen to call English votes for English laws, virtually without any parliamentary oversight and completely without the possibility of any judicial oversight.
We are due to debate the details of the proposals on 15 July, but from the earlier confusion it is unclear quite how many of the draft Standing Orders the procedures of the House will allow us to address in that debate.
Why did the Labour party ignore the needs and voices of England when it first created lopsided devolution, and why has it come up with absolutely no ideas to meet the requirements and needs of England in 18 years of lopsided and unfair devolution?
The shadow Leader of the House makes her case in her usual strong way. On timing, a debate is scheduled for Wednesday next week. Has she approached the Leader of the House and asked for a suspension of Standing Orders so that we can speak through the night on all the issues? He has given confirmation that he will allow amendments and votes on the proposals, but has the shadow Leader of the House asked for that time?
I have not, but I might consider it. The hon. Gentleman has taken the assurances, or non-assurances, I got from my earlier question a bit too much to heart. Twenty-two pages of changes to Standing Orders will be up for consideration. Our normal procedures allow a vote on only one or two amendments. If the Government were to move a motion that allowed many, many more amendments to be voted on at the moment of interruption at the end of the debate, we might be in a position to have more of an effect. Currently, it is a fait accompli.
I assume that that is exactly what the Leader of the House will do—move that motion—but even if that happened, and even if we had votes at the moment of interruption, we will surely not have enough time to debate 22 pages of Standing Orders. Surely we should go through the night.
I am minded to agree with the points the shadow Leader of the House has made. Does she agree that the logical extension of what the Leader of the House has said on double voting implies that, in future, if any of the nations of this kingdom wish to exit by way of referendums, all the peoples of this kingdom should have a say in those plebiscites?
The hon. Gentleman pursues his Northern Irish interests in his usual way. Many such issues need to be looked at very carefully, which is why we advocate a constitutional convention, so that we can look at the thing in the round and in balance, and so that we can make proper decisions that weigh and balance with one another, rather than changing something not realising that there are unintended consequences.
To follow up on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), it might be of interest to the shadow Leader of the House that, back in 1997, I tabled an amendment to deal with the result of the Scotland Act 1998 through amendments to Standing Orders. Of course, the Government at that time disregarded the matter.
The shadow Leader of the House will be aware that the McKay commission studied the issues in some detail a couple of years ago, and came to the conclusion that any proposals
“must be widely regarded as fair…and respect the prerogatives of all MPs.”
Why does she believe the Government have rejected the McKay proposals?
I have no knowledge of whether that is the case. However, I am sure we will hear from the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker). He can give us any answers, because he was there at the time.
Today’s debate is about process rather than content, so I will confine myself to observations of the process the Government have chosen to use. I note in passing that the Government have gone much further on English votes for English laws than the McKay commission suggested would be wise. They have not explained why they have chosen to do so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has just observed.
The McKay report contained serious warnings about the effect of creating an English veto, a double majority and two classes of MPs. The Government’s proposals ride roughshod over those warnings and instigate all three. They also extend the application of the rules to Finance Bills and create the extraordinary probability that a measure passed by a majority in both Houses can be vetoed by a minority. It is possible to concoct a procedural fix to introduce major constitutional change, as the Government have done, but my contention is that it is not wise to do so. In fact, it is a constitutional outrage.
On that aspect, the hon. Lady is missing the point. If there were a majority in both Houses for a specific piece of legislation, there would be a majority in the House to suspend Standing Orders. That is crucial in ensuring that a Government that is dependent on non-English votes can get its business through.
The proposals for a double majority, as far as I understand them, are extremely worrying. They are likely to act as a dampener on the activities of the House of Lords as a revising Chamber. That is part of the debate we must have next week. Today I want to talk about the process—how the Government have decided to make the change.
The issue of Standing Orders is absolutely at the heart of the matter. The proposals make no suggestion of entrenchment of Standing Orders and no requirement of a special majority to suspend them. The House regularly suspends Standing Orders in particular circumstances—to speed up the passing of a Bill, to change the sitting hours or whatever it may be. The flexibility of Standing Orders ought to be a reassurance to the Labour party. If a future Labour Government are dependent on Scottish votes, they will be able to get their business through the House because they can suspend Standing Orders.
It is terribly kind of the hon. Gentleman to give us that assurance, but we need to base changes to our constitution on more than that.
The process the Government have chosen to use to create EVEL goes against every precedent. Substantial constitutional changes should be implemented by Acts of Parliament and examined in both Houses. They should not be rushed through in changes to Standing Orders. Changes to Commons Standing Orders cannot be challenged in the courts because of article 9 of the Bill of Rights, nor can they be subject to proper, open scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament. They are clearly not suitable for introducing a de facto English Parliament within the existing Union Parliament, as the Government have proposed.
All major constitutional changes, from the supremacy of the Commons in the Parliament Acts through to our membership of the European Union and the devolution process, have been introduced by Acts of Parliament—the Parliament Act 1911, the Parliament Act 1949, the European Communities Act 1972, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Each of those Acts was properly scrutinised over a period of time, with days of debates in both Houses and the proper consideration of amendments. Many were preceded by Green Papers, White Papers and a thorough debate in the country. Some could only be commenced after a referendum had been won. All those measures are subject to interpretation in the courts. Under the Government’s proposals, the introduction of English votes for English laws would not be.
The hon. Lady is of course right in reading that list, but I say to her gently that the point we are at today is the logical consequence of the way in which devolution was carried out. The logical consequence at its end is that, if we wish to reform the structures of this House in the way she wants, we need a written constitution and a completely different basis on which we are to operate. That was one of the things that those on the Labour Front Bench at the time said persistently they did not wish to see happen. Bringing forward measures to change these matters by Standing Orders is the only way to honour the commitment made by those on the Labour Treasury Bench at the time.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has perhaps not read the manifesto on which Labour fought the election, but it said we wanted a constitutional convention. The time is right to have a much closer and more holistic look at what is happening in the House of Lords and in the devolved Parliaments to see where we have ended up. That is our current policy.
No previous changes to Standing Orders have contained such substantial constitutional change. I have already dealt with why this is a lamentable precedent.
I have already given way to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I want to get on, because many people wish to speak.
Previous changes to Standing Orders, which were nowhere near as radical as these, were introduced initially on a temporary basis, often at the suggestion of the Procedure Committee, and tested out before either being abandoned or made permanent. Many innovative changes to Standing Orders have been introduced on a temporary basis initially. For example, the changes introduced by the previous Labour Government allowing for debates in Westminster Hall were temporary and subject to renewal. So too were the changes introducing the programming of legislation and deferred Divisions. Yet the Government have not even asked the Procedure Committee to report on the changes it has sprung on the House. They have merely suggested that it should have a review into the new arrangements, but only after they have already been implemented.
It is usual for changes to procedures of the House to be approved by free votes, as they are House business not Government business. This was the case with House of Lords Reform; changes to the legislative process, including the introduction of public evidence for Committees; the programming of Bills; and the election of the Speaker. The EVEL proposals, however, are Government business and they are especially partisan because of their explicit inclusion in the Conservative manifesto.
I am arguing that this is the wrong way to do this kind of change. The procedures and Standing Orders of the House should be House business. They should not be infected by Conservative or Labour Whips. It is the Government who have chosen to make these changes in this way. The right hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of himself.
We are now to believe that the Government should mandate changes to the Standing Orders of the Commons as set out in their manifesto and force them through using a whipped vote. This is a very, very sad day. The Government’s changes will turn their slim majority of 12 into over three figures if both Scottish and Welsh MPs are to be prevented from voting. I believe this is the real driver behind the changes, and it makes the outrageous procedural fix, of using Standing Orders rather than legislation to produce the change, even more unacceptable. I hope that even at this late hour the Government will think again. The unintended consequences of what they are doing could be very large indeed and the precedents they are setting are dire.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We all heard the Leader of the House indicate that tuition fees in England might be a measure subject to the procedure that he is outlining, anticipating not just the changes to Standing Orders but your certification if the change to Standing Orders take place. I know the Leader of the House does not understand the Barnett formula, but I know you do, Sir. Would that not therefore put you in a position of having to certify and disallow the votes of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Members of Parliament despite the clear direct and indirect effects that that would have on their rights to vote and on their constituents? Would that not be not just an invidious position, but greater than the shoulders any one man could bear—if I remember the quote correctly, when just such a measure was rejected in the 19th century?
The right hon. Gentleman has demonstrated very clearly that he knows his Gladstone and we are grateful to him for that. The short answer to him is that if these measures take effect, the responsibility of the Chair will be to fulfil his duties in accordance with the Standing Orders. That is the factual position. How people interpret that, what gloss—I use that term non-pejoratively—people put on it, is a matter for them. The Chair will do the duty of the Chair. People may like that duty or dislike that duty, think it beneficial or hazardous, but the duty would have to be done.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. My point of order relates to the response that has just been given, of which I am very respectful indeed. The Speaker will know that under the proposed changes to Standing Orders, the Speaker is actually forbidden to give reasons in the House for certification. However, the Speaker is not forbidden outside the House to give reasons for certification. Is the Speaker minded to give reasons outside the House for certification?
I think we are ahead of ourselves. The possibility that the hon. Lady is ahead of me, and indeed most us, is certainly not one that should be discounted. I say she is ahead of herself with no spirit of surprise at all, but there are no such Standing Orders yet. My counsel to the hon. Lady is to wait and see, or, in the words not of Gladstone but of the late Lord Whitelaw, it is probably best to cross bridges only when you come to them. Perhaps we can leave it there for today. If there are no further points of order, we will proceed with the debate.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr Speaker. It is my first speech in the new Parliament and I rejoin the fray in another highly charged debate in this Chamber.
First, may I say that the Leader of the House has met me on a number of occasions in the past six weeks to keep me informed of the Government’s proposals? The problem we have, which afflicts the whole House, is that at this moment we have no Select Committees. Not a single Select Committee is meeting yet, because the relevant orders have not been laid.
The politics of what we are debating today and what we will debate next week are for the Government and this House to decide. I very much want to focus on a few areas that the Procedure Committee will want to cover later in this Parliament. As I said, the Committee is yet to meet. I hope we will meet before we rise for the summer recess, but that is not guaranteed. I will be sending a letter, as the elected Chairman of the Procedure Committee, to the Leader of the House later this week.
Is it therefore not distinctly odd that the Leader of the House wishes to take great pride in sticking to his manifesto commitment, when that commitment said he would consult the Procedure Committee before he brought the proposals to the House? He is trying to bring the proposals to the House before the Committee has met.
The pursuit of perfection is always to be desired, but it is not often achieved. That is the best answer I can give to the hon. Lady.
If the House votes for these changes next Wednesday, the Committee will want to consider how future Bills are drafted and whether their scope might be narrowed to enhance their Englishness. Will there be a temptation to narrow a Bill so that England comes to the fore and other parts of the Union are excluded? In due course, we will want to take evidence from Clerks and parliamentary counsel. In the last Parliament, there were some hard-won successes to make Report and programming more effective.
The hon. Gentleman is outlining a new idea for Parliament—post-legislative scrutiny—because the Standing Orders will already have been approved. His Committee might say they are rubbish, but we will be stuck with them for a year. What are we going to do about that?
With the greatest of respect to the hon. Lady, I am not entirely sure what the Procedure Committee can do about that on its own. As she will be aware, when the Committee comes up with recommendations, they have to be brought to the Floor of the House for a vote. We can bring our ideas to the House, but we cannot require it to adopt them; there has to be a vote on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend might recall that the Leader of the House wisely said that the arrangements would be subject to review within a specified period, which would give the Procedure Committee the opportunity to consider not only the 22 pages, but the seven lines of proposed changes to Standing Orders that I have proposed and which would also give the Speaker the power to issue a certificate.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Committee will take a close interest in these changes, if they are implemented by the House next week—that is my guarantee to the Chamber.
The changes, if adopted, will insert up to four extra stages after Report. It is important that the Leader of the House identifies in the near future where this time will come from. We cannot have the Report stage being pared back. If anything, there is an enormous appetite in the House for its being extended to provide greater scrutiny, so we would be concerned if no additional time was provided for the extra stages.
Does the hon. Gentleman not find it the tiniest bit ironic that when the Procedure Committee asked the previous Leader of the House for extra time on Report, it was turned down, but that now, all of a sudden, extra time and extra possibilities seem quite feasible?
I hope that extra time is indeed feasible. That is what I am asking for. It would be disastrous for the House and its ability to scrutinise and amend Bills if Report were truncated to take account of these new stages. Indeed, we might have to accept that the legislative process attached to certain Bills will become longer. Something will have to give. Either we will have to spend more time scrutinising fewer Bills, or we will have to extend the parliamentary day. More time will have to be found in the parliamentary week, or we will have to consider having fewer Bills.
It is for the hon. Gentleman to make that point. As I said, I want to keep out of the politics. I know that that is difficult for a Member of Parliament, but I will try my best.
I have briefly covered my concerns about Report, which I believe are shared by other colleagues I have spoken to.
The hon. Gentleman talks about more time being available for Report. Would not the guarantee of that be a House business committee? Is that not the logical conclusion of where we are heading? In his many discussions with the Leader of the House, has he detected any enthusiasm from those on the Treasury Bench for that proposition?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a wonderful intervention, because I am a huge fan of a House business committee, but he will recall that he was in the previous Cabinet, which did not bring forward such a committee. If the Government are minded to support one, they would obviously have my support in that ambition.
The hon. Gentleman just said he wanted to keep out of the politics and talk only about the procedure. I noted earlier the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary bending his shell-like. Was he talking to him about politics or procedure?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman, whom I know very well, that we were not talking about this proposal. I shall tell him what it was about outside the Chamber.
I want to make some progress because plenty of other people want to speak and I do not want to crowd them out. The Government will need to be careful in the language they use when introducing a Bill. It is right that an explanatory memorandum asserts the Government’s view about the scope of the Bill, but that assertion should not be made overtly or aggressively. We do not want a Bill introduced with the Government saying, “This is absolutely unquestionably relating to England only, and anyone who disagrees is a total and utter idiot”—that would be the subtext. They need to be careful in their language so as not to be seen to be putting undue pressure on the Chair—I dare suggest—to come up with a certification one way or another.
On the question of whether a Bill should apply to England only or some other combination, all Bills currently contain a territorial extent clause. Does that not give a very good indication of whether a Bill applies solely to one part of the kingdom or another?
It might well do. However, in the Conservative party’s manifesto for England, we say:
“The Speaker will be required to certify bills or clauses where English MPs must give their consent to equivalent English decisions where provisions are devolved to another part of the UK, or they have a separate and distinct effect for England. In reaching a decision the Speaker will have regard to any cross-border effects and the national significance of any legislation, for example infrastructure projects.”
I think, therefore, that there is still some debate around the issue my hon. Friend raises.
Is it not a good sign that we have had the Scottish Parliament for some years now and there have been no great issues about deciding what is a Scottish matter? If it is possible to know what is a Scottish matter, it must be equally easy to know what is an English matter.
I know that the Chair of the Procedure Committee will understand that decisions of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot have a financial consequence on this House, but that decisions of this House can have a financial consequence on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I know that someone of his expertise will have appreciated that point, even if it is lost on others.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and, of course, I appreciate that point and the sincerity with which it has been put to me.
In seeking certification of various clauses as the Bill progresses after Report, it could be that on some occasions the Speaker needs to clarify the advice he has been given and will require additional time to seek advice, particularly where judgments are finely balanced. The Speaker must be allowed that time. I know that the Government have an imperative to get their legislation through as quickly as possible, but in bringing forward these proposals, the Government must recognise that on occasions there will need to be delay as advice is sought and considered by the Speaker.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to his next point, I want to ask whether he is concerned that the Speaker is wilfully and deliberately prohibited from giving the reasons for certifying that Bills are exclusively English or English and Welsh only? What justification could there possibly be for prohibiting the Speaker from explaining why he has provided such a certification?
I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to “cross-border”. Will he clarify whether there are even more parts of this jigsaw than we thought hitherto? If we take an issue such as HS2, those of us who are close to the English border and the connection at Crewe could be more deeply affected than, say, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Does that mean that some Welsh MPs could vote and others could not?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. It is not for me to defend the Government’s position on this matter, or to make the arguments that the Government will make. Her point will, however, have been heard by the Leader of the House. In fact, I was almost coming on to the direct part of my rather long speech that most closely relates to the very observation she has made.
The guidance attached to the proposed Standing Order No. 83(j) says that the judgment of what is “minor or consequential” is for the Speaker. I think the Government should provide some examples of what they feel count as “minor or consequential”. We also need greater clarification of what the “or” means. As the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) knows, Standing Order No. 97(1)(a) relates to the Scottish Grand Committee, and the term used there is “minor consequential amendments”—there is no “or”. On the definition of “or”, I suggest, the fate of nations may turn, so we need to define what it means.
I have spoken for longer than I anticipated. Indeed, this is probably my longest speech in the 10 years I have been in Parliament. I have enjoyed taking interventions and hope I have responded as best I can. What I would say is that I take this place very seriously; I take the concerns of Members very seriously; and the Procedure Committee will look at this issue very seriously.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate. As already mentioned, it is very rare that we have the opportunity to debate an important issue under Standing Order No. 24. That suggests once again just how important this matter is and why we need to turn our attention to the many issues already identified in some of the fine contributions of right hon. and hon. Members today.
What we are doing is quite extraordinary. We have not done anything like this for centuries. It is of historical significance because it is of such constitutional importance. Nothing has been done like this since the days of Gladstone. I look nervously at the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who might well confirm that. Back in the days of Gladstone, this was being done in an attempt to curtail the voting rights of Irish MPs, and history is able to judge just how successful that was in maintaining the then Union in those times.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to cite the Irish example. No one predicted then the crises that would follow for the next 30 years of parliamentary history and then the subsequent crisis, which ended up partitioning our island. Does he agree that no one can now predict the crisis that could engulf Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland as a result of what is happening here?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that I would not have defined it as a “crisis”, but as constitutional progress, but he is right in one respect—if this is an attempt to try to save the Union, God help them! It seems as though the Government are absolutely determined to push us out. They are introducing English votes for English laws in the same week as we have been debating amendments to the Scotland Bill, and 58 out of 59 Scottish Members of Parliament supported measures that were agreed in the Scottish Parliament by every single party in it. To be voted down by English Members of Parliament shows that this is not just English votes for English laws; it is English votes for Scottish laws. It is totally and utterly unacceptable.
We are hearing about vetoes. Yes, that is a major characteristic of what the Government intend to do—to have a veto on issues that will be for England only. How are they are going to achieve that? They are going to give Members of Parliament iPads in the Lobbies. It is not only English votes for English laws; it is English iPads for English laws. Why do they not just tattoo our foreheads as “Scottish”—then they would not have to vote on the iPads and they would be able to identify us. Apparently, though, that was turned down for this more high-tech solution. It is utterly and absolutely bizarre.
One would think that, with something as constitutionally important and of such historical significance as this, we would have the fullest possible debate and full scrutiny. To create something as important as this, one would expect debate not just in this House, but in every single constituency and community across the United Kingdom. We would have thought there would be a Bill and an opportunity for it to be properly debated, and that the Bill would have different stages, at which hon. Members would be able to table amendments to be discussed, debated and decided on.
What do we have, however? We have two weeks in which to consider this issue. It was introduced by the Leader of the House last Thursday. This House has been invited to make up its mind a week on Wednesday. The Leader of the House would not even answer any parliamentary questions about English votes for English laws, but we got one yesterday, did we not, and by Jove, was it a cracker.
May I say to the Leader of the House—this is an important point—that we have been discussing, debating and looking at these issues for a long time in the House? We hear again and again about the West Lothian question and how it has to be addressed. I have a great deal of sympathy with English Members when it comes to this. I think there is a point to be addressed and that something needs to be done. However, to do it on the basis of the mad proposals of the Leader of the House is almost an insult to the House. To present his paper last Thursday and then to ask every Member to reach some sort of conclusion about what we should do is just about the worst possible disrespect to this House. The Leader of the House has to reconsider the amount of time he is going to give us to discuss the matter because this is huge. It is massive. It has never been done before.
This is an intriguing and interesting point. I still do not get English Members’ point. They are creating a quasi-English Parliament in the unitary Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They cannot be bothered—
I have asked the hon. Gentleman this question before, but he has not given any kind of answer. How does he distinguish between the proposals as he puts them and the fact that the UK Parliament deliberately decided in 1997 to create two different functions—not two different classes of Member? It was the UK Parliament that decided. What is his beef?
I am actually grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. What we did—I will say this ever so gently and carefully to the hon. Gentleman—is this. We went around the difficult business of creating a Parliament. We did the work. We had a constitutional convention, and we consulted with communities and with interests across Scotland. What he wants to do is to create this quasi-English Parliament in two weeks. “Go and do the work.” That is what I say gently to English Members. “You cannot create a Parliament on the basis—on the back—of just changing the Standing Orders of the House. You must debate, you must consult, and you must make sure that you take the nations with you. Do the work, English Members!”
When it comes to constitutional reform, the engine for change in Scotland is the Scottish National party. Every time we see a leap forward for the Scottish Parliament, an increase in powers or an independence referendum, it is based on the votes of the Scottish people and their representatives, such as my hon. Friends who are with us today. Let us not try to pretend that this is anything other than an attempt to create an English Parliament in the House of Commons, which is unacceptable to the rest of the people in the United Kingdom. I have a great deal of sympathy with English Members. I know of their unhappiness, because we hear about it again and again. English Members are so unhappy about the unfairness of it—about these evil, dreadful Scottish MPs who come down here and vote on their legislation—but if they want an English Parliament, they must go and do the work.
I certainly do not think that the presence of members of the hon. Gentleman’s party in the House is an evil presence. They have a legitimate reason to be heard and to make their points. However, the hon. Gentleman seems to me to be arguing that we should not be taking the current Scottish legislation through Parliament at all, and that we should be having a national constitutional convention. We are responding to the vow, which he said was absolute, but I must gently point out that there was also a vow to the electorate in England and Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom that we would legislate to change the Standing Orders of the House. That, surely, encapsulates part of the problem. It is a bit difficult for the hon. Gentleman to come and argue against it when he asks for exactly the same position for the purpose of his own agenda.
What the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said in his rather lengthy intervention is partly right. What we have in this House, and what we have in this nation, is an issue and a difficulty. It is called “asymmetric UK”, although Members may prefer to call it “asymmetric Britain”, and what it has led to is our own unhappiness. We agreed to—we voted for—a particular dynamic or trajectory of Scottish politics. We wanted to see further powers for our Parliament. That has been turned down by English Members, so we are unhappy. I sense that my Welsh colleagues are unhappy as well. In a debate last week, I heard them raise some of the cross-border aspects of what is being suggested. I know, because we are hearing it non-stop, that English Members are unhappy, and they are probably right to be unhappy. I know that they are furious about Scottish Members. How dare we come down and vote on their precious public services? However, there is a solution: it is called federalism, and it is what we thought we were voting for last year. What we were promised was as close as possible to federalism, or to home rule.
No, I will not.
We could do our own thing and decide what we want, English Members could decide what they want in their own Parliament, and Welsh Members could decide what they want. I see that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) agrees with all that I am saying. What is wrong with it? We could then come together in the House to decide on important matters such as foreign affairs, defence, international relationships, the monarchy and the currency. That would resolve all the outstanding issues, and would deal with some of the unhappiness on these Benches, on the Government Benches, and on the Benches to my right. Why can we not do it? I will tell the House why we cannot. It is because English Members do not want to pursue a logical solution to a question that is deeply hard to answer.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s argument about federalism. Germany is often cited as an example of a federal structure that works, but it did not work until Prussia was broken up. If one component of federalism is disproportionately larger than all the others, that imbalance cannot be overcome. I think that federalism in England may not be possible, given the current structure of the United Kingdom.
I say this to the hon. Lady: we will put up with it. We will deal with it. I know that it is difficult, but it is better than what we are securing now, because that is not working.
This places you, Mr Speaker, in the most unenviable, pernicious political situation—a situation that is almost intolerable. Given what was said by the Leader of the House, I think that you will be receiving your orders about certification from him. That is very much what seemed, from his remarks, to be intended. He will tell you what is English-only legislation, and you will have probably the most political role in the House. You will either have to stand up to the Leader of the House as he attempts to bully you, or you will have to—
Order. In what is a highly charged debate in which strong feelings are being expressed, I must of course leave the House to make its own assessment of the merits of these proposals, but, for the avoidance of doubt, let me just say to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that I have never been pushed around by anyone in the House. To be fair, the Leader of the House has never tried to push me around, and I think he knows that it would be a forlorn mission.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that, under proposed Standing Order 83R, votes on tuition fees will automatically be subject to the new rules. Let me also say to him and his colleagues that I regard their presence in the House as a great asset. I would much rather have them than 57 Liberal Democrats.
I do not really know what to say in response to that, other than “Yes, so would I.”
The Speaker of the House of Commons will now be thrust into a political role in which he will have to decide—if he is not to be bullied or pushed around by the Leader of the House—what will constitute Barnett consequentials. He will have to decide what will have an impact on our Parliament, and what will have an impact on the constituents whom we are all here to represent. The Speaker of this House will have to decide whether a Bill has a spending impact on the Scottish Parliament, and on public services in Scotland. That is a dreadful, dreadful position for him to be in. I say to the Leader of the House, “Shame on you for placing our Speaker, our cherished Speaker, in such an invidious political situation.”
That is exactly the point that I was coming to. There are ways of dealing with it. I suggested a solution in the form of federalism, but I did not sense any warmth towards that proposal from Government Members, so let us try another way. The right hon. Gentleman is right: we do not vote on English-only legislation. What we do is this. Every time a Bill is introduced, we scour it for the Scottish interest. We look for the Barnett consequential issues, and we establish whether it will have an impact on Scotland. If it will not have that impact, we leave it alone. We stay well away: of course we do. With all due respect to my English friends, I have better things to do than scour legislation about policing arrangements in Plymouth when I am looking after the people of Perth and North Perthshire.
As the right hon. Gentleman says, if there is no Scottish interest, we take no interest ourselves. How about building on that? How about saying. “This is a voluntary arrangement that seems to work reasonably well; why do we not continue to pursue it?” There may be issues on which the Leader of the House and I do not entirely agree, but surely we could try to resolve them by means of a voluntary arrangement, without creating two classes of Member of Parliament in the House of Commons. Why should that not be a solution?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that one of the problems—my constituents raise it with me regularly—is that Labour set up asymmetric devolution? My constituents watched Scottish Labour Ministers troop through the Lobbies to vote on education and health issues that simply did not affect their constituents, and that, to me, was unacceptable.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous. Is he really saying that we should replace a settled position which is part of the constitutional architecture of the House with a discretion for the Scottish National party in respect of what is or is not a Barnett consequential issue? Surely he cannot be suggesting that we do that.
This is the way mutual respect works across this House—by doing things constructively and through having a relationship. If the Leader of the House disagrees with me about a Barnett consequential issue, let’s talk about it; do not impose legislation to make us second class in this House. How about resolving things through discussion, negotiation and partnership, instead of trying to ensure that we become second class in the united UK Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I actually think the SNP has quite a good record in not voting on English business unless there are Barnett consequentials. If an amendment is tabled to exclude from this provision matters where there are Barnett consequentials, which I favour as I do not want to put the Union at risk, will the hon. Gentleman be minded to support it, and the general principle of English votes for English business if there are no Barnett consequentials?
To continue this dialogue, can the Leader of the House confirm that were such an amendment to be tabled by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) or any other hon. Member, we could vote on it next week? Was that a nod or a shake of the head by the Leader of the House, or a gesture suggesting “I don’t know”?
My right hon. Friend did a good job there, and almost teased out a response from the Leader of the House suggesting we would have an opportunity to vote on these very important amendments—because we do intend to table such amendments. We want to try to improve this measure, because what we have at the moment is an absolute and utter disgrace and shambles.
I say this in a respectful manner: the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) will remember that a few weeks ago there was a lot of language about the suggestion that the SNP would come down and determine our Budget and so forth, and, in respect of these specific questions, both the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman said they would vote on matters relating to English questions and did so.
That is a poor caricature of what actually happened. The hon. Gentleman, a distinguished Member of this House, is here to represent the interests of his constituents, and we on the SNP Benches are here to represent the interests of the constituents who elected us. The hon. Gentleman wants to make me and my hon. Friends second-class Members of this House.
I am grateful to, on this occasion, my hon. Friend for giving way.
It would be helpful if the Leader of the House clarified this matter and put some of us out of our misery on it. As currently drafted the Standing Orders are worded in terms of the Speaker being told or instructed; it is stated that the Speaker “shall” treat minor or consequential effects and disregard them. It would therefore be very helpful to the SNP and the rest of us if the Leader of the House confirmed that consequential effects do not include Barnett consequentials.
The hon. Lady is always my friend regardless of the occasion, and she is absolutely and totally right. The Leader of the House could get to his feet at this very moment and say that anything that has a Barnett consequential will not be subject to this English votes for English laws provision. He has that chance, but sits defiantly in his place. This is the difficulty my hon. Friends and I have.
No, but the point is that that issue is for the debate that is to be had, on an amendment. Will the hon. Gentleman support extra time for the debate next Wednesday? At present the Adjournment debate is proposed for Thursday. Why not have all of Wednesday and all of Thursday on this very important issue?
Yes, but I do not just want that; I want what every other meaningful and significant piece of reform of this House receives, which is a Bill—a piece of legislation we can properly scrutinise. I do not want just an extra day; I want the process that involves this House looking properly at all this.
This is an absolute and utter shambles and it is falling apart in front of the Government as we speak. The Leader of the House has divided the whole House on these issues, with Labour, the SNP, the Liberals and everybody else against the Conservatives. I suggest that the Leader of the House takes these plans away, looks at them properly, and brings them back when we have an opportunity to debate them properly and scrutinise them effectively, and this House gets its say on these issues. As things currently stand, you, Mr Speaker, are placed in a dreadful situation and this provision does not command anything like a spirit of partnership or a consensus across this House. Take them away, bring them back, do something better, and do not treat us as second-class citizens in the unitary United Kingdom Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is unacceptable to us.
I have received your message that you wish me to be relatively brief, Mr Speaker, and I shall do my best to abide by that and not model myself on Gladstone, whom we have had earlier reference to, and who Disraeli said was a
“sophistical rhetorician, inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity.”
I shall try to avoid verbosity and inebriation at the same time.
It has been said in this debate that this process has been rushed. That things have been rushed is the classic objection to almost any constitutional change, and it is one I am fond of using personally, but on this occasion it would only be rushed for a member of the Roman Curia or perhaps part of the mandarin class of imperial China. The issue we are considering has been debated since the 1880s. I do not think a period of 130 years is unduly rushed. The West Lothian question itself was raised by the hon. baronet the former Member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, in the 1970s, but we have had plenty of time to consider and deliberate on these issues.
The second major objection is that two classes of Members are being created. If I believed that to be true, I would oppose this proposal because I think there is a unity within this House that is of fundamental constitutional importance, and, looking at the SNP Benches opposite and considering the contribution its Members have already made since their election in May, it is striking how important that point is: every Member needs to be free to participate in the debates on the laws that we make. That is a reasonable and fair principle.
In a characteristically forthright speech from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), we have heard that the Scotland Bill does not give Scottish MPs the same type of veto as English MPs, but I think that is wrong. It is a misunderstanding of what the Scotland Bill is doing, because if this Standing Order were already in place, the Scotland Bill would be devolving the issues to Scotland and to English MPs in this House at the same point. Yesterday we debated the Crown Estates and how they would be a devolved matter to the Scottish Parliament. If that goes through the House of Lords, it will be a matter that in England will only be voted on by English MPs, or at least they will have a veto on it. What is devolved to Scotland is equally and simultaneously devolved to England. That seems perfectly reasonable.
The double voting does not only apply to Members from England; it applies to Members from England, Wales and potentially Northern Ireland, if the issue is devolved to one Assembly but not the others. If there is a matter that is not devolved to Wales, Welsh MPs would be involved in that second lock on legislation. That is right and fair, because it ensures that those who represent the relevant constituencies have a say on how the law is made and a block on it, but, crucially, they cannot make the law unless all UK MPs support it in a majority.