Sir George addresses Party Conference on the Constitution.
4 Oct 1999
Speaking at Blackpool on Monday October 4th, at the start of the Conservative Party Conference, Sir George attacked the Government on Constitutional reform, and set out his Party's views.

"Last week Tony Blair told us that his devolution policy had strengthened the UK.

Who is he kidding?

Not the nationalist parties, as they win Labour strongholds in Wales; and as the tide of separatism nearly engulfs Hamilton in Scotland.

Not people in England, who find the current devolution settlement indefensible.

And not the Conservative Party, who see the constitution that has served this country well now under attack. That is why there are more resolutions on the Constitution at our Conference than anything else.

Tony seems confused by our Constitution. He attacks the House of Lords for blocking the Hunting Bill, when it was his own Ministers in the Commons who cut off the legislative oxygen.

When confronted about the injury done England – the fact that Scottish MP’s vote on English legislation, but I can’t vote on Scottish matters - do you know what they say? “The best answer to the West Lothian question is to stop asking it.” So says the Lord Chancellor, advocating economy in this direction to counterbalance his extravagance in others. But we will go on asking the awkward questions they don’t want to hear.

The composition of the House of Lords is being changed, but the Government cannot say what it is being changed to.

There is a Manifesto pledge to hold a referendum to change our voting system; but complete confusion from Ministers as to when it might take place.

Perhaps more important than this frontal assault on some of our institutions is the relentless undermining of the role and stature of the House of Commons. By seeking to weaken Members of Parliament, Tony Blair seeks to weaken those whom we represent.

When it comes to the constitution, Tony Blair says one thing and does another.

He said that Scotland and Wales should be free to make their own decisions.

Then last month, the principle of devolution was tested - on the beef on the bone ban, a needless burden on farmers and an insult to British consumers if ever there was one. The rhetoric of devolution succumbed to the reality of central control. He decided there should be one policy for the whole of the UK. The wrong one.

And what is the response when Labour is pressed on the English Dimension?

They propose Regional Assemblies.

Down in Hampshire, when we talk of Wessex, we mean Edward and Sophie, not a Regional Assembly. We have no wish for another layer of politicians for a region that has no boundaries.

As a response to the injustice they have done to England, Regional Assemblies don’t get to the starting block.

At the election, Tony Blair said he would make the Lords more democratic and representative.

Of course Labour wants to fulfil their manifesto pledge to remove the Hereditary Peers.

But it is constitutional vandalism to remove the only independent element within The Upper House, without any assurances that a new House would be at least as independent. And what a fine job the Peers are doing, fighting for the Independence of the Second Chamber.

And then there remains the threat to our voting system from PR.

One thing I learned from canvassing in the Euro elections, in which William led us to such an outstanding victory, was that voters want to vote for a face not a list, and they want one local member not a tenth of ten regional members.

People also want the opportunity to kick the government out at a general election. PR takes that opportunity away.

Tony Blair may preach a new moral crusade; yet he seems willing to get into bed with the LibDems in order to stay in power.

At the election, Tony Blair said he wanted a more effective House of Commons.

Yet now Tony Blair treats the House as little more than an annoying irrelevance.

His own former Chief Whip has accused him of treating it like his poodle; the Speaker is forever rebuking the Government for sidelining Parliament. The first business when we return in a fortnight is another censure debate on Labour MP’s for leaking Select Committee Reports.

So we will have much to do when we regain office.

We have formulated policies to deal with the worst effects of the Government's policies; and we want to hear your views in this Forum.

Firstly, we will defend the British system of voting for Westminster.

How absurd a spectacle was that of Alun Michael, Labour’s Leader in Wales, praying that his party would do badly enough for him to win a top-up seat.

We set up the Mackay Commission to look into the functions and composition of a reformed second chamber. It produced a thorough and well-considered report that produced two options for a reformed second chamber; we will resist Blair’s attempt to curb its independence.

On devolution, we will work to restore balance and fairness to the United Kingdom.

We will implement our English votes on English laws policy. Where a Bill only applies to England and Wales, only English and Welsh MP’s will vote.

This is a solution which works within the traditions of the Westminster Parliament, is supported by voters north and south of the border; and avoids the further fragmentation of the Union.

Finally, we will strength Parliament to enable it better to hold the executive to account.

We have set up a Commission on Strengthening Parliament chaired by the eminent constitutional academic, Professor the Lord Norton of Louth.

The Norton Commission will report next spring and inform our Manifesto. Once elected, and after consultations with the House, we will waste no time implementing measures to restore the role and status of Parliament, so it can hold the executive to account.

Tony Blair has played fast and loose with the constitution in his own interests.

Only the Conservatives are able to heal the constitutional wounds that his Government has inflicted on this country."

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