Speaking after Gordon Brown in the debate, below is the text of Sir George’s speech on Devolution:
Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con):
It is always a pleasure to follow the former Prime Minister and, in a moment, I will deal head on with the argument he has just made about two classes of MPs. I am delighted that this issue has been taken off the back burner and put on the legislative hot plate by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who as party leader some 15 years ago set out a very clear statement of our party’s policies on this.
Let me deal with the argument we have just heard about two classes of MPs. First, it asks the wrong question. We are here to represent our constituents, so the question is not whether there should be two classes of MPs, but whether there should be two classes of constituents, one of which would be for those who have a significantly more powerful democratic leverage than the other. Post-devolution, the Scottish voter has more democratic leverage than the English voter. Through his or her MSP, he or she has total control over the matters that have been devolved to Holyrood. That is fair enough. They have leverage over those matters that have not been devolved, such as defence. That is fair enough. But they also have leverage over matters that exclusively apply to England, and in some cases that influence is decisive. My voters have none of that. They have no leverage over devolved matters in Scotland, and they can be outvoted on matters that are exclusively English. That is indefensible and unsustainable, as some of us have been saying since 1999.
Let me deal with the question about all MPs being equal. MPs are not equal. Post-devolution, we have different case loads. Four Members of Parliament never vote. MPs who are Ministers cannot initiate debates on behalf of their constituents or ask parliamentary questions. Some MPs can speak for more than six minutes, and others cannot. Some are paid more because of their responsibilities in the House. It is not the case that all MPs are equal.
The McKay commission summed up the situation very well in paragraph 59 of its report:
“These survey findings suggest a potent combination of dissatisfactions in England. There is a clear and enduring sense that England is materially disadvantaged relative to the other parts of the UK, especially Scotland.”
What a disappointing response we heard from Opposition Front Benchers to that clear statement. They refused to answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on what the principle that the Labour party seeks to defend might be.
Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab)
Sir George Young:
Perhaps the hon. Lady will now tell us.
I am quite taken by the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is so focused on the role of Scottish Members of Parliament. In his principles and plans, does he intend to apply that focus to Members of the House of Lords as well, or is he only worried about the House of Commons?
Sir George Young:
The proposition in my party’s manifesto was absolutely clear: it applies to Members of this House.
Several hon. Members
Sir George Young:
I want to make some progress and so will not give way.
In 1999, it looked as though we might make some progress on rebalancing the constitution post-devolution. The fourth report of the Procedure Committee in the 1998-99 Session looked at the consequences of devolution for this House. The report was unanimous and the Committee included a majority of Labour MPs. This is what they said, in paragraph 25:
“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.”
That was the proposition put forward unanimously by a Select Committee of the House, and it provided the building blocks for resolving the West Lothian question.
However, for the rest of that Parliament, and for the subsequent two Parliaments, we had nothing but obfuscation by the Labour party. First we were promised regional assemblies, and when they imploded we were offered a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs. That, in the polite words of the Library, “met infrequently”. It met infrequently because the previous Government never actually set it up. After it was abolished, we then had the fiasco of the regional Committees at the end of the last Parliament, which often could not meet because they were inquorate.
Throughout the previous three Parliaments, some of my right hon. and hon. Friends harried the Government time and again to do something about the West Lothian question. The flimsiest of arguments were produced in response. On one occasion, the then Deputy Leader of the House said:
“The arguments are new and opportunistic, and they were not heard when the Conservatives were in government.”—[Official Report, 6 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 60WH.]
Of course they were, because Scotland did not have its own Parliament when we were in government. In response to the Procedure Committee’s clear recommendation, which I have just referred to, the Government said:
“If…it were possible to identify some Bills as relating exclusively to England, it is not clear what benefit that would have for the House.”
That was an absolutely astonishing statement. They put the telescope to the blind eye.
To bring us up to date, my party made a clear commitment in our manifesto to put that right:
“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”
That did not make it into the coalition agreement, as a result of caution on the part of our Liberal Democrat colleagues—having listened to the Deputy Prime Minister during Question Time, however, I think that they might be reviewing that position.
What should we do now? There have been a number of imaginative suggestions from right hon. and hon. Friends, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). One possible solution was in the Scotland Act 1978, which would have introduced devolution had it been carried in a referendum. It stipulated that if it turned out that a measure that impacted only on England was carried by Scottish votes, there should be an interim period for reconsideration. That recommendation was never implemented because the referendum produced a negative vote.
I would suggest that a Bill should get a Second Reading with all Members of the House voting, then go to a Public Bill Committee composed solely of English MPs, and then come back on Report during which everybody can vote. However, if it turned out that a specific amendment had been carried only with the votes of Scottish MPs, the relevant section of the Bill should be recommitted back to the Public Bill Committee. We would then have a process that we are familiar with through, for example, negotiating with the House of Lords. If we can negotiate to get a Bill through with the Lords, we can negotiate with elected English MPs to get it through the Commons.