Sir George speaks out again on the West Lothian Question
21 Jan 2004
Sir George speaking in the House
Sir George speaking in the House
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Speaking from the back benches
Speaking from the back benches
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Speaking in the House of Commons on a Conservative motion on voting by Scottish MP's, Sir George highlighted the inequity of the present position

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to be the first English Member to participate in the debate. I listened with respect to the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell). I hope that she will not find my speech cynical or opportunistic. It is certainly not meant to be a separatist speech or an argument for English nationalism or an English Parliament. I am interested in rebalancing the constitution to take account of the reality of devolution. That is a responsible thing for the House to do.

Constitutional reform has not been the Government's strongest point. Having promised the country at the last general election that we would have a more democratic House of Lords, we are now moving towards a wholly appointed House of Lords without even waiting for the next Parliament to break that election commitment. Regional assemblies have yet to fire the public's imagination. We recently saw a bungled attempt to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor. We heard earlier today of the inexplicable delay in the introduction of a civil service Bill.

The debate shows that Labour Members are oblivious to the imbalance in our constitution post-devolution. When we recently debated the matter in Westminster Hall, at the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), nearly all the Labour Back Benchers who participated were from Scottish constituencies. The only English Labour MPs present were the Minister and, briefly, his Parliamentary Private Secretary—an indication of a lack of concern by Labour Members about the constitutional imbalance as seen from the English perspective. As we move towards the next election, and as discipline within the Government begins to break down, so the so-called West Lothian question once again raises its head.
The present constitutional settlement is unfair, unstable and indefensible, and Labour Members seek to portray it through the eyes of Members, but I agree with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) that that is the wrong lens. We should look at the issue through the eyes of our constituents and ask whether they are equal. The injustice is simply explained. Until 1998, the people of North-West Hampshire could influence, through their MP, policy in Scotland, for example, on care in the community, and of course the converse was the case. After devolution, my constituents lost that ability, but although they can no longer have a say in whether their Scottish friends pay for personal care in a nursing home, their Scottish friends can influence whether they have to pay for such care. I have to say to Labour Members that it is frankly impossible to defend or explain the current position to my constituents.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: In a moment. The position is compounded by the West Lothian question, whereby Scottish Members can impose foundation hospitals on my constituents, but not on their own. As an English MP with English constituents, I find it impossible to defend the status quo.

Mr. Foulkes: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young: No, I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson).

Angus Robertson: On defending the indefensible, will the right hon. Gentleman defend the participation of the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) in the proceedings on the Mersey Tunnels Bill and the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill? What impact do those matters have on Scotland?

Sir George Young: I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) defended himself remarkably well in the face of a sustained onslaught from Members on both sides of the House. The proposition that we are debating today is whether Scottish MPs should vote on matters that exclusively concern England and Wales. We want the position to change, and I hope that when it does hon. Members will observe the convention that I am about to promote.

We got an insight into the Government's response in the debate a fortnight ago. The Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who replied to the debate, said:

"We are not here just as representatives of our constituencies on some sort of delegative or representative basis, but to make judgments and take decisions on behalf of the whole of the UK."

We are manifestly not; I can no longer take decisions on behalf of the whole of the UK. He went on to say:

"The arguments are new and opportunistic, and they were not heard when the Conservatives were in government".

Of course they were not—we did not then have devolution and the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Foulkes: The right hon. Gentleman is making a perfectly valid point, but does he not agree that the answer is not to introduce the dog's breakfast suggested by his Front-Bench spokesman—and to try to classify Bills as applying to England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland or some combination of the three—but to do as we did when we got furious because the right hon. Gentleman imposed the poll tax on Scotland? We got devolution; surely he should be campaigning for devolution for England.

Sir George Young: I am delighted that I have carried the right hon. Gentleman with me so far, and I hope to carry him for the rest of my argument—a substantial burden.

In the debate a fortnight ago, the Minister said:

"The Government will not listen to what we consider to be a bogus argument".

They will not listen to an argument legitimately put forward by Conservative Members and our constituents. Describing the remedy that I favour, which had been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, the Minister then said:

"The consequence of his argument would be a breakdown of the power of this Parliament's sovereignty."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 6 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 58–60WH.]

That is a bit rich from a member of this Government, who have done more to undermine the sovereignty of Parliament than any other.
In fairness to Ministers, I have to point out that they have now abandoned one argument—regional assemblies. Throughout the last Parliament we were told that they were the right answer to this issue. The Under-Secretary did not use that argument this afternoon, and it was not used a fortnight ago, because it is not a legitimate argument.

I make no apologies for bringing to the attention of the House once again the fourth report of the Procedure Committee in the 1998–99 Session, which contains a section on legislation. The proposition that the Under-Secretary suggested we dismiss as impractical was specifically examined by a Committee of this House. Those who are interested in the subject will find support from the Procedure Committee for an argument that, in the light of devolution, different procedures might be necessary.

That Committee had a majority of Labour MPs. It anticipated conflict post-devolution and wisely suggested procedures to minimise it. It suggested that we change our rules by convention. Paragraphs 25 and 26 of the report are worth reading in full. The latter 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 an important conclusion because it concedes the principle, post-devolution, of new procedures for legislation affecting England. Once that point has been conceded, English votes for English Bills is the logical conclusion.

That is not to bring an end to parliamentary sovereignty. On the contrary, it is to keep parliamentary sovereignty alive by making changes to reflect the fact of devolution. Paragraph 28 argues that representation on Bills dealing with English legislation should be in accordance with party balance in England, not the House.

The Procedure Committee, which approved that unanimously, included nine Government Members. It also included the Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). The principle that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and I are putting forward is not just ours. A Committee of the House adopted it. The Committee also dealt with the argument that identifying such Bills would be impossible for the Speaker by dismissing the point in paragraph 27. So, this is not a cynical and opportunistic argument from the Conservative party. It is taking forward a unanimous recommendation of the Procedure Committee.

David Taylor: Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that, even given his long parliamentary experience, knowledge of constitutional affairs and service on the Procedure Committee, it will always be possible accurately and unambiguously to classify Bills as so-called English legislation? Does he not recognise that some very complex issues are involved and that such a proposition would be a dog's breakfast in its own right?

Sir George Young: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks not just at the Report but at the evidence given to the Committee. It took evidence from Clerks of the House and Chairmen of Standing Committees, and came to the conclusion to which I have referred:

"We recommend that the provision allowing the Speaker to certify Bills"

should apply to England. After listening to the evidence—presumably from those who thought that such a solution was difficult and from those who thought it was practical—the Committee reached that unanimous conclusion.
What did the Government do when they received the report? They just dismissed it. They said:

"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 whole debate about the West Lothian question simply did not appear on the Government's radar. They did not so much disagree with the solution; they did not think that there was a problem.
There is support in my constituency for the sort of solution that the House is debating. I remember seeing an opinion poll showing a majority in Scotland for the proposition that Scottish MPs should not vote on English domestic legislation. So, the proposal that only English and Welsh MPs should vote on Bills covering England and Wales could work perfectly well within the conventions and traditions of Parliament. It is based on precedents, would be accepted as fair in Scotland as well as in England and represents common sense. It would deal with the English question; it would make the Union stronger. The Government are making a serious mistake in their response, and I hope that quite soon it will fall to a different Administration to put right this constitutional injustice.
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