Sir George speaks out on English Question
20 Oct 1999
Sir George Young (North¨CWest Hampshire): The Opposition welcome the debate. It has been some five months since the report was published. There might have been some advantage in debating it before 1 July, not least because the Committee produced the report concentrating
"on those matters which need to be addressed before July".
However, I am aware that there were pressures on parliamentary business in the summer, and I welcome the opportunity to debate the report this afternoon.
Given that the Government's response to the report was published as recently as yesterday, I agree with their decision not to ask the House to implement their recommendations today, especially where those are at variance with the Committee's proposals. I think it right to invite us instead to take note, with further debates on the specific resolutions as and when the Government decide to take matters forward Monday for some of the resolutions. Many are non-controversial and can be activated quite quickly.
Like the Leader of the House, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and his Committee for grappling with this important subject. Devolution is like one of those fireworks with sequential bursts of different colours. Just when one thinks that it has finished, there is another explosion of light. The Committee's report provides a further burst of illumination on the devolution landscape. I congratulate my hon. Friend and his Committee on producing a unanimous report on such a complex issue.
I do not believe that the House or the country have fully woken up to all the changes that devolution will bring about, although the recent tensions on beef on the bone have given us a preview. That issue shows how the language of devolution can conflict with some of the centralising imperatives of Downing street.
Our overall approach is to make devolution in Wales and Scotland work; to accept the verdict of the two referendums and to look forward. We welcome the publication of the concordats earlier in the month, although they were a little bit later than was originally expected. However, the Opposition have a caveat, which is very relevant in the context of the report.
In our view, for England, the present devolution settlement is neither stable nor defensible. I do not propose to develop that argument fully in this debate, because it was very well set out in July by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies. In a nutshell, now that we have new arrangements for resolving domestic priorities and legislative programmes in Scotland©¤©¤arrangements to which English and Welsh MPs are not a party©¤©¤it is no longer appropriate for Scottish MPs to retain rights on the same issues in England and Wales.
When I address the key paragraphs of the report©¤©¤paragraphs 23 to 27©¤©¤I hope to show that the Select Committee's recommendations provide some important building blocks towards a more equitable settlement that will rebalance the constitution and remove the inequity for English voters and English Members of Parliament. I very much regret the fact that the Government have chosen to reject this most important section of the report, and to leave us with an indefensible status quo.
The first paragraph of the report sets the whole tone, and the Leader of the House picked that up. It is essentially a cautious approach, speaking of
"some of the changes which may be required"
to House of Commons procedure. The Committee advocates an evolutionary approach. It says that
"arrangements made may well have to be adapted in the light of experience."
It
"intends a full review of the procedural consequences of devolution in due course."
Therefore, the report is very much a first-sighting shot at what needs to be done, and it should be recognised as such.
Paragraph 2 suggests a "constitutional affairs committee", but does not spell out how that would be constituted, how it would relate to the existing institutions of the House, or what its terms of reference might be. The Committee will no doubt want to return to that subject in due course, to fill in some important details.
The difficulties that confronted the Committee, and that confront the House and the Government, are listed in paragraph 5, headed "General Principles", which I note the Government have accepted.
Some of the four principles pull in opposite directions. Principle No. 1 is that parliamentary procedure or custom should not undermine the fact of devolution, but principle No. 3 appears to qualify that, by saying:
"it is legitimate for all Members . . . to have an interest in matters which remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Parliament".
That is fine, but the report continues:
"however Members from an area to which powers have been devolved will have a particular interest in business affecting that area".
Principle No. 2 states that, if co-operation is desired, procedural barriers should not prevent it. Co-operation may be desired by Members of this House in a matter that has been devolved, but Members of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly may not want it. It is not clear how principle No. 2 would operate in that case.
Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Lest the point be lost by the right hon. Gentleman moving on too quickly, will he make it clear whether he, on behalf of the official Opposition, accepts the third general principle?

Sir George Young: I have no difficulty with the principles. I am hoping to show that their application may be difficult when there is ambiguity about which principle comes first. Almost anything could be brought into order in the House under the second principle by a Member simply asserting that, although the matter was devolved, in his or her view, co-operation was desirable.
There is also a difference in emphasis on the principles between the memorandum of understanding published by the Lord Chancellor earlier this month and the Government's response. Paragraph 14 of the memorandum reads:
"The United Kingdom Parliament retains the absolute right to debate, enquire into or make representations about devolved matters. It is ultimately for Parliament to decide what use to make of that power, but the UK Government will encourage the UK Parliament to bear in mind the primary responsibility of devolved legislatures and administrations in these fields".
That is much softer than principle No. 1, which reads:
"Parliament has agreed that certain powers and responsibilities should pass from it to the devolved legislatures; parliamentary procedure or custom should not be called in aid to undermine that decision".
We need to ensure that Parliament and Government are working to the same ground rules. Perhaps at some point we could debate the concordats and return to some of these issues. As I have said, we welcome the recent concordats.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): In seeking clarification, is it not legitimate for any representative in any part of the legislative framework to show interest and attempt to inform the debate? It has been said that devolved legislation will be dealt with in the place to which it has been devolved.
Sir George Young: Yes. I just wonder how one interprets that principle. Although it looks fine, Members may pray in aid different principles in arguing that something is in order. Indeed, it would be possible to develop as strong an argument that it was out of order from reading another principle.
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid): In fairness, let us give the full picture. The right hon. Gentleman says that, while Parliament has the sovereignty and right to debate everything, the Government will encourage Members to respect the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh National Assembly. That is one part of the argument. However, if he turns the page of the memorandum of understanding, he will see that paragraph 15 states:
"The devolved legislatures will be entitled to debate non-devolved matters, but the devolved executives will encourage each devolved legislature to bear in mind the responsibility of the UK Parliament in these matters."
It is symmetrical. The idea behind the concordats and what we are trying to achieve by setting precedents is to encourage a partnership and a mutual respect for the rights and responsibilities of both the UK Parliament and the devolved legislatures.
Sir George Young: I take the point, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that there is a difference in emphasis between saying, "You will encourage Parliament to bear something in mind," which is what the memorandum says, and saying explicitly that parliamentary procedure or custom should not be called in aid to undermine that decision. I am saying that the Government have come up with a memorandum of understanding, which I accept, while the Procedure Committee has come up with a somewhat different approach to the same question. We need to ensure that Parliament and Government have the same ground rules on the same issues.
Dr. Reid: This is an important point because the concordats are between not Parliament and Parliament, but Government and the Scottish Executive. Parliamentary procedures are not matters for diktat by Government but for this Parliament. That is why we are debating them. It would have been inappropriate for the Government to do other than arrive at an agreement with their counterparts in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly. As a Parliament, we are discussing how we should interpret such matters. That is entirely in accord with the precedents of the House. Of course we shall try to ensure that there is no nuance of difference between the documents, but that requires discussion, as our debate shows.
Sir George Young: The way in which to resolve the issue would be for the Government to say, without equivocation, that, where there is a dispute, they would accept the Procedure Committee's comments, which would override the memorandum of understanding. The report is what Parliament has said, and it is what we are debating. We are taking note of what the Procedure Committee©¤©¤[Interruption.] I should like to make some progress. I have some important points to make.
On subjects for questions, I agree with the Committee that we cannot simply leave the decision on what is in order to Ministers. The report puts this rather delicately:
"the attitude of ministers to certain issues is not constant".
It must be right that the decision should rest with Parliament and the Speaker. I find some ambiguity in the resolution drafted by the Clerk at the end of paragraph 10, which is an attempt to resolve the issue. It recommends that questions can be tabled that relate to matters which
"UK Government ministers have taken an official interest in".
That is not a legitimate interest or an interest which the law on devolution allows them to take, but an official interest.
What is an official interest? Is it an interest that has been expressed by somebody who holds ministerial office? The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could take an official interest in whether beef on the bone is banned in Scotland©¤©¤but should he answer questions on that matter? The answer is no if we accept the principle in paragraph 5 of the Committee's report, but yes if we read paragraph 10, which would allow questions on anything in which the Minister has taken an official interest.
Mr. Browne: I am fascinated by the right hon. Gentleman's argument. Where does the law on devolution disallow a Minister taking an interest in any subject? We are talking not of federalism or independence, but of devolution.
Sir George Young: The principles to which I have referred specifically rule out intervention on certain issues. One such principle is that we should not do anything that undermines the principle of devolution. I am saying that, if "an official interest" is not defined, the principle can be undermined by declaring a question in order whenever a Minister has taken an official interest in the subject, even if that interest is precluded by what is set out in statute.
I think that the Government recognise some of those problems but are reluctant to find a solution. There is an admirably frank quotation of the Leader of the House in the report. She said
"there will be . . . a number of grey areas."
The past 10 minutes have illustrated that. She continued:
"I am reluctant to get drawn into the precise boundaries of the settlement and the judgements which might be made; indeed that will, happily for me, be a matter for the chair."
On oral questions, the Committee reflected the continuing uncertainty over the need for, and the role of, a Secretary of State for Scotland. It did not say that there should always be a separate Question Time for the Secretary of State for Scotland; it simply said that it would be "premature" to decide that it was no longer needed. Perhaps the Secretary of State will shed some light on that when he replies.
If devolution is to work, there can be no argument that we cannot justify allocating the same time for Scottish questions. I accept the recommendation and the proposals for discussion through the usual channels on what happens to the extra 10 minutes that will become available©¤©¤the first of the devolution dividends.
I agree with the recommendations on Grand Committees. The Modernisation Committee has drawn our attention to the luxuriant foliage of the Committees. Many Members wanted to rationalise and streamline them. We now have just such an opportunity. Grand Committees sit uneasily with devolution; once we have devolution, their purpose is diminished. The Government argue that it is premature to abolish such Committees, and I would not go to the stake over that. The Procedure Committee suggests that they are suspended while we see what happens with the Westminster Hall sittings, but the Government suggest that we keep them while we see what happens in Westminster Hall. The matter should be reviewed, perhaps in a year.
On the scope of Select Committees, the Government appear to take a different view from the Procedure Committee. If my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, catches the eye of the Chair, I shall listen to him with interest.
The section on legislation is the most interesting part of the report. I was pleased to find support from the Procedure Committee for the argument that, in the light of the arrangements for Scotland and for Wales, different procedures may now be necessary for England. The Committee anticipates conflict, and wisely suggests procedures for minimising it. I regret that the Government have rejected the proposals.
I was especially interested in the proposal to change rules "by convention", which is set out in paragraph 23. Changing rules by convention is a means of reform in the House without primary legislation. For example, if the Government lose a vote of no confidence, the Prime Minister asks for a dissolution. There is no rule; it is a convention. If there is support for the proposition that matters that affect England should be voted on only by English Members©¤©¤a number of Scottish Members have already indicated their support for that©¤©¤it is for consideration whether that might be done by convention rather than legislation.
Paragraphs 25 and 26 are important for the argument about English Bills. Indeed, they pave the way for the proposals that have been set out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

It is worth reading the relevant section in full. It states:
"The main point of principle to be considered is whether it is appropriate to retain special procedures for bills relating exclusively to one of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, as currently apply to bills relating exclusively to Scotland or Wales. On balance we believe it is. There may soon be governments of different parties in different parts of the United Kingdom; party balances already differ in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."
That is a very important section, because it concedes the principle©¤©¤I believe for the first time©¤©¤of new procedures for legislation that affects England. Once that point has been conceded, English votes for English Bills are a logical conclusion. Indeed, on page 59, in evidence, that was proposed.
Paragraph 28 also concedes that representation on Bills dealing with English legislation should be in accordance with party balance in England. The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) stated:
"As a Scottish MP, frankly I am not terribly interested in having a say over the English health budget, the way in which health policy is going or education, and all the matters over which responsibility has been devolved to Scotland, I think it is right and proper that English MPs should be left to consider the equivalent legislation in England for themselves."
There speaks a Scottish Member of Parliament.
Mr. Wigley: Taking forward the logic that only English Members of Parliament should determine legislation that applies only to England, does the right hon. Gentleman accept the corollary that Welsh Members of Parliament should determine matters that apply only to Wales but are passed in this Parliament?
Sir George Young: The logic is precisely that. Where Bills apply only to England and Wales, which is more likely to be so, only English and Welsh Members of Parliament should vote, and likewise if Bills apply only to Wales.
Mr. Browne: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: This is the last time that I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Browne: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way for the third time; he is extremely patient. Would he further concede that, under the principle of English votes for English laws, in the rare circumstances that the House might need to legislate on a devolved matter, with the agreement of the Scottish Parliament, only Scottish Members should be allowed to vote on that legislation?
Sir George Young: I am not sure in what circumstances the House would legislate on a matter that applied only to Scotland and not to other elements of the United Kingdom. To those who have difficulty with the principle, the important point to make is that it was not dreamed up by the Conservatives. The principle that I read out was approved unanimously by a Procedure Committee on which nine members of the Government party serve. I am not the only one who is enunciating and defending a principle; the principle found favour with a Committee of the House.
The Committee report goes on to say that it is too early to tell whether legislation relating to a single part of the UK will be brought forward frequently. However, it must be likely that legislation covering England and Wales will be introduced. The Committee does not seem to have dealt with that. Paragraph 24 covers legislation relating solely to one of the four component parts, as does the recommendation in paragraph 27. That should be amended to cover Bills that affect only England and Wales.
The Committee deals with one of the principal objections to the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition: designating Bills as applying only to one part of the UK. It has been argued that that would put an impossible burden on the Speaker and, therefore, was not a feasible solution, but the Committee clearly comes to a different view in paragraph 27.
On the key recommendation that the Speaker should be able to certify that a Bill applies solely to England, the Government put the telescope to their blind eye. The Committee spells out, in paragraph 26, precisely why it considers such a procedure necessary. Devolution has changed the constitution. Important principles about legislation that applies to only one part of the UK are raised. In order to anticipate and avert conflict, the Committee believes that provision should be made.
How do the Government respond to that considered view? They simply assert in paragraph 8:
"If . . . it were possible to identify some bills as relating exclusively to England, it is not clear what benefit this would have for the House."
The entire debate about the West Lothian question and the imbalance in the constitution has gone straight over their heads. It is not that they disagree with the solution; they do not believe that there is a problem.
The Select Committee also proposes that the Standing Order that requires Standing Committees to reflect party strength in the House be lifted, so that it can reflect party strength in the relevant constituent part. Again, that supports my right hon. Friend's proposition for English Bills.
The report provides a basis for dealing with the West Lothian question©¤©¤a question that the Government have found so awkward that the Lord Chancellor has advised us to stop asking it. We will not; nor should we. The Government's view, apparently, is that Scottish Members of Parliament should continue to vote on English Bills. As they stated in their White Paper:
"Scotland's Members of Parliament will continue to play a full and constructive part in the proceedings of the House of Commons."
That view is not supported by public opinion in Scotland, and it is certainly not supported by public opinion in England. [Interruption.] In an opinion poll in Scotland, there was a majority for the proposition that Scottish Members of Parliament should not vote on English domestic legislation.
The Government's proposal for regional assemblies is not an appropriate answer. First, the powers that would be given to the English regions would not compare to those being devolved to Edinburgh; and, secondly, a region will get an assembly only if the Government can demonstrate that there is demand for it. In my region, there is no such demand. England should not have regional government and an extra tier of administration foisted upon it, simply so that the Government can fudge the West Lothian question.
In rejecting the recommendations, the Government are clutching at straws. They recognise that a Committee of English Members of Parliament would have to sit in the Chamber. That is fair enough, but they dismiss that because
"it would be difficult to exclude any other Members of the House©¤©¤though if they wished to be called in debate they would presumably be less likely to catch the Speaker's eye than Members with a constituency interest."
That is a bogus argument. It is the culture of excuses that the Prime Minister condemned this morning. The difficulty to which the Government refer is no different from the difficulty that a Standing Committee might have at present. Certain Members are entitled to take part in their proceedings, and others are not. I am not aware that that has presented us with any difficulties, and the Government will have to come up with a better alibi than that.
The rest of the report is straightforward. I agree with the proposals on private and delegated legislation. On relationships between Westminster and the devolved legislature, I strongly agree with paragraph 37, which stresses the importance of personal contact. There is much to be said for regular informal meetings, which is how my party has addressed the issue. So far, nothing too offensive has been said in the House about Members of the Scottish Parliament, or the other way round. I hope that that tolerance will continue to be observed, and survive the forthcoming encounter on the soccer pitch.
We shall need to return to the subject. With the qualifications that I mentioned at the beginning, I support what has been proposed, but I believe that it should be taken to its logical conclusion of English votes on English Bills, building on the reforms proposed by the Committee and sadly rejected by the Government.
Our proposals would work within the conventions and traditions of the Westminster Parliament; they are based on precedents; they are accepted as fair in Scotland; and they represent common sense. Above all, they would deal with the English question and make the Union stronger. I must say to the Government that I believe they are making a serious mistake in their response, and it will fall to a different Administration to put right this constitutional mistake, along with all the rest that they have got wrong.

 
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