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Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill: Third Reading

9th September 2011

Harriett Baldwin moves the Third Reading of her private member's Bill which attempts to address the controversial West Lothiam Question - which highlights anomalies in voting powers of MPs following devolution in Scotland, Wales and N Ireland.

Harriett Baldwin: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Let me start my remarks by reassuring Opposition Members about a number of things that are not in the Bill and that—surprise, surprise—both the BBC and The Guardian occasionally misreport things. I want to reassure everyone here that I am a whole-hearted supporter of the Union. I have referred before in the Chamber to the memory of my late, lamented grandmother, Flora McLean McLeod Morison, from the Isle of Skye, and I think that that will go a long way towards reassuring everybody what a strong supporter I am of the Union, being a physical embodiment of it myself.

I also want to reassure everybody that I support the trajectory that we have been on over the past 10 or 15 years in terms of devolution. I think that all decisions, as we are seeing with the Localism Bill, should be made at the lowest possible level in terms of the people whom they affect. That brings democracy close to the people who are affected by laws, so I am wholeheartedly in favour of devolution. I also want to reassure Opposition Members that there is nothing in my Bill that would create two classes of MP. That has been a characteristic of previous attempts by colleagues to resolve this question, but that situation is clearly not acceptable. We cannot have an answer that relies on two classes of MP at Westminster, and the Bill deliberately avoids anything along those lines.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the constructive way in which she is presenting her Bill, but if she does not want to create two classes of MP, what is the purpose of certifying legislation in this way? What would happen if a Bill were stated to be English only? Why is she saying this, if she is not expecting MPs in some way to be disbarred from taking part in discussions and voting on such issues? What is the purpose behind her Bill?

Harriett Baldwin: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be going into great detail on that point.

Oliver Heald: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her Bill. Does she agree that in the House, during the period when Scottish Bills were dealt with by the Scottish Grand Committee under Standing Order No. 97, nobody ever talked about two classes of MP? Why should that happen with an English procedure?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes an erudite point, and I shall no doubt refer to Standing Order No. 97 in my remarks.

I completely agree with the Minister that this matter should be framed as an English question. Clearly, it is an unfinished piece of constitutional business that the devolution settlement has allowed a situation in which English matters increasingly come before the Chamber and are voted on by MPs from all parts of the United Kingdom.

Pete Wishart: I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on getting so far with this Bill, but does she have any explanation why the sole Conservative MP from Scotland has voted on English-only legislation? The Academies Bill, the Education Bill and the Health and Social Care Bill have all been voted on by the one Conservative MP from Scotland. Does she think that he is setting a good example?

Harriett Baldwin: I think the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), sets an absolutely marvellous example in all respects, as one would expect me to say. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who represents the Scottish nationalists, will be delighted with the Scotland Bill that my right hon. Friend is helping to bring forward in this Parliament; he is being very uncharitable to my right hon. Friend.

This is an urgent problem that needs to be resolved in this Parliament. To make my point, I need refer colleagues and Opposition Members back only as far the last general election when, as we know, no party got an overall majority in this Parliament and there were negotiations between not only the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties but between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. At that time, there was talk of a rainbow coalition of parties that might come together at Westminster, and I remember the upsurge of resentment in the correspondence that I received as a representative of what I like to think of as the heart of England about how completely undemocratic it would be to have a situation in which English-only legislation came through the House relying for support on a majority of MPs from other parts of the United Kingdom.

Mark Lazarowicz: Is not this getting to the heart of the issue, because the logic of what the hon. Lady is saying is that if that situation had developed, some MPs should not have been allowed to vote on England-only matters? This is not just about a certificate; she is going down the road of trying to bar MPs from outside England voting on such issues. That is very divisive to the whole nature of this House and the constitution.

Harriett Baldwin: I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the wording in the Bill: there is nothing in it that would prevent him from continuing to vote on English matters, should he so choose. However, if a piece of legislation came forward and he could be confident, as a result of this Bill, that the measures in it would have no effect whatever on his constituents, he might feel comfortable writing to his constituents and saying, “Having looked closely at this piece of legislation, I feel comfortable that I might abstain from voting on it.”

Thomas Docherty: The hon. Lady has mentioned the upsurge of resentment in the correspondence that she got about a system that might come into place. Does she understand the outrage in Scotland about the fact that 83% of people did not vote for David Cameron to be Prime Minister, yet the Scots are now stuck with him?

Harriett Baldwin: I am sure that colleagues on the Government side of the House are absolutely delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) is the Prime Minister.

Iain Stewart: I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on having proceeded this far with her Bill. Does she accept that if the Bill became law, we could introduce measures that would protect England without barring any Member from voting on legislation? I refer to the idea put forward by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and others for a double majority system in which Bills that applied only to one territorial part of the United Kingdom would require the support both of the whole House and of Members from that territorial part in order to be passed.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct; there has been a substantial body of work looking at exactly how to resolve this question without creating the completely impossible situation of having two classes of MP.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): An interesting point is developing here. I wonder whether the hon. Lady is considering not voting on the Government’s Scotland Bill, in line with what she is saying, and whether the Government are looking to have the support of a majority of Scottish Members for the Scotland Bill before it receives Royal Assent.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Lady points out precisely why it is so important to resolve in this Parliament some of those complex constitutional issues. There will be others, I am sure, who will refer to the problems of the other House and the fact that there is draft legislation currently in this place about reforms to that House. There might be consequences for that piece of legislation as well.

Oliver Heald: On the point that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) just made about the people of Scotland not having predominantly voted for a Conservative Government, is it not the case that when Tony Blair was elected, the majority in England did not vote for him, but we had to put up with him?

Harriett Baldwin: I will not digress down that particular historical byway.

Let me get back to the Bill, which does three simple things.

Mark Lazarowicz: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way such a lot—this is a very important Bill for us all. Is her position really that if a Bill affects one part of the UK, it should not be supported if the majority of MPs from that part of the UK are not behind it?

Harriett Baldwin: My position is an English position. As a representative of an English constituency, I think that an increasingly large amount of the legislation that comes before the House affects England only and that if the House continues not to tackle this issue, it will increasingly become an issue that our constituents find extremely distressing.

Thomas Docherty: The hon. Lady is doing a superb job of not falling into the trap that some of her colleagues fall into of simply being anti-Scottish or very bad losers. Does she accept, however, that large chunks of legislation, such as the measures concerning the Olympics, affect only one region of England? Is she saying that her ultimate goal is that only MPs from the affected regions should be allowed to vote on such measures—I am looking at the Minister, because I am pretty sure that a Bill went through recently that specifically affected his region—or will it be a case of Worcestershire imposing itself on London?

Harriett Baldwin: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that nothing is further from my intention than to revisit the regional question, which was so resoundingly defeated by the voters of the north-east as a complete white elephant. I am talking about England—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands what we mean by England—and I am talking about issues that increasingly come before this Chamber that refer just to England.

I want to thank colleagues, the Minister and those who worked so hard on the Bill in Committee for allowing us to reach the stage in the debate where I can reiterate what the Bill does. It essentially does three things. In developing those three things, it has drawn on the work of those much wiser, more experienced and more eminent than myself. I am a mere new Member of the House, so I was able to benefit from learning about the recommendations that have come through a couple of sources. Let me start by reading from the recommendations of the Justice Committee in the previous Parliament.

In 2009, the Justice Committee prepared a report called, “Devolution: A Decade On.” In its conclusions and recommendations, it said:

“The question of whether England-only legislation can be more clearly demarcated from other legislation has to be resolved if any scheme of English votes for English laws is to work.”

Mr Leigh: I do not understand what the problem is. Why should there be any difficulty for the Government in recreating our old Standing Orders to allow us to demarcate legislation as English? We used to do it with Scottish legislation; why can we not do it with English legislation? It could be done in five minutes.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point, but I will speak about some of the other recommendations of the Justice Committee, which are relevant to some of the other clauses in my Bill:

“Even if legislation could be more clearly distinguished, the current system of territorial financing in the UK post-devolution means that the levels of public finance decided for England determine levels of resource allocation to Scotland and Wales. While we agree that the system could be changed in order to remove this effect, such a change would be a necessary prerequisite”.

I have taken a slightly different approach in this piece of legislation, which is to spell out on the face of the draft legislation what impact the Government think it might have on the Barnett formula and any successor formula. That would allow hon. Members who represent the Scottish National party to look at the legislation and reassure themselves, for example if there were no financial consequences, that they could have their hand strengthened in some way in their practice—which was mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty)—of not voting on legislation that does not affect their constituents.

Guto Bebb: On that important point, High Speed 2 has been mentioned. Obviously that issue affects England, but the financial consequentials might be to the tune of £2 billion, which would make me very keen to be involved. It would be of great help to a Welsh Conservative MP, therefore, to have that information on the face of the draft legislation.

Harriett Baldwin: I thank my hon. Friend for that Welsh perspective and that support for the principles of the Bill.

Mark Lazarowicz: Does not the issue of HS2 illustrate how impractical and divisive this attempt to divide the House would be, even if only in terms of indicating where a Bill applies? The legislation on HS2 may appear to affect only England, with trains going to Manchester and Liverpool, but the trains, hopefully, will go north to Scotland, and will also go to north Wales. In many areas it is not possible to make a simple division into Scotland-only and English-only Bills. It would divide the House and divide the way in which it operates.

Harriett Baldwin: I am not saying, am I, that a lot of legislation will have those characteristics, but some legislation will, and there will be more and more of it as we devolve more and more powers to other parts of the UK. So why not know about that when such legislation comes before the House? Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman points out with his example, there may well be knock-on consequences for other parts of the UK, in which case that would be very apparent to him.

I was mentioning some of the eminent minds that have informed the Bill. I also drew heavily on a piece of work that was done by the Conservative party in opposition. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) is now Secretary of State for Justice, but in those days he chaired the democracy taskforce. He prepared a committee that included my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) and for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and none other than our distinguished Leader of the House. They came up with recommendations for dealing with the democratic deficit on this constitutional issue.

One suggestion was that Standing Orders might be used. Some of the examples given mentioned Standing Order No. 97, which was formerly used to deal with Scotland-only legislation. As I understand it, however, some of the academic reaction was that it might put the Speaker in a very awkward position, were he asked to certify that a piece of legislation applied to England only.

The Bill is designed to address that challenge for the Speaker, because we would certainly not want to politicise the Chair. Goodness me, this is so far above my pay grade that I feel I should not be trespassing on these areas at all, but the provision of more information in draft legislation would make it easier for the Speaker to use his powers or to allow the House to agree changes recommended by the Procedure Committee in 1999— I am sure the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife will allude to that in a moment—to alter some of the Standing Orders to allow certification of Bills as applying to other parts of the UK.

Thomas Docherty: It is always comforting to hear that some Conservative MPs have the best interests of the Speaker at heart. Surely the role of the Speaker is to be the impartial judge. I suggest that there is the possibility of a Secretary of State having a vested interest in ruling one way or the other whether or not all MPs should be allowed to vote on a piece of legislation. That would be most unsatisfactory, would it not?

Harriett Baldwin: That is why my Bill gives much more ample time for pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft legislation setting out these issues, and setting out very clearly whether there are any financial implications. I am sure that as the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Procedure Committee, he has looked at those 1999 recommendations.

I shall now speak about the news that we got yesterday. I take the opportunity to welcome very warmly the announcement that the Minister made yesterday that he is about to establish at long last a commission to examine the West Lothian question. Throughout these proceedings, the Minister has been exemplary in recognising that the Government need to look at that issue. As we know, he is an extremely busy Minister, and he has had a number of other pieces of crucial legislation to get through. I have asked myself on occasions when the commission might be established. We got a little more information in yesterday’s written ministerial statement, but if I may, I shall take the opportunity to ask the Minister some detailed questions about how he anticipates the questions left unanswered by his statement might be resolved.

The statement referred to the commission being established in the weeks following the return of Parliament in October. The Minister has also spoken about his intention to set up the commission by the end of 2011. Colleagues have heard that said many times. I think we can deduce that we will have an announcement of the commission between our return in October and 31 December. First, will the Minister confirm that that is the correct understanding?

Secondly, what will be the commission’s instructions about its timetable for reporting? I acknowledge that the Minister has been busy steering a lot of legislation through the House, but I am worried that it has taken until now to receive a written ministerial statement about the commission’s establishment. When the commission is established before the end of the year, what instructions will he give it about reporting back? Specifically, will it report before the end of the Session, so that any legislation required to put in place its recommendations may be included in the next Queen’s Speech? I do not think that we know when the next Queen’s Speech will be, but we have a hunch that it might be some time around May.

Mr Hollobone: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her role in pushing the Government finally to produce the written ministerial statement. Our hon. Friend the Minister is no doubt sympathetic to her aims and mine, but I suspect that our absent colleagues—the Liberal Democrats, who are not in the Chamber—are the ones who have delayed substantial progress on the issue. Were it not for the Bill, I doubt that we would have received the ministerial statement at all.

Harriett Baldwin: I would not want to make that sort of statement. The Minister has been extremely busy, and I know that a commitment to set up a commission to examine the West Lothian question was in the coalition programme for government. However, we will want to hear from the Minister when the commission is likely to report.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on piloting her Bill to this stage. Does she share my disappointment that the commission will not deal with financial matters? Given her excellent knowledge in this area, will she hold discussions with the Government to find out more about the “various processes” led by Treasury Ministers that are described in the statement, because it is the financial disparities that cause most concern to my constituents, because they observe that, over the past 25 years, there has been a £200 billion subsidy to other parts of the United Kingdom from this country?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend asks a sensible question. Her point explains precisely why my Bill would provide that any impact on the Barnett formula or any successor should be spelled out. We have heard fine examples today that show that Opposition Members will lose no opportunity to suggest ways in which English-only legislation could affect their constituents, such as because it might have hidden, knock-on financial implications of which they are not aware. I am sure that the Minister will want to address my hon. Friend’s good question.

It would be helpful to hear more information about the commission’s terms of reference, because yesterday’s statement was clear about those things that it will not cover. In addition, how will it take evidence? Will it sit in public? Will it be a body to which everyone can volunteer to give evidence? Who will chair it, because there is a fairly small number of people who fit the narrow definition of those who should serve on it?

Pete Wishart: While the hon. Lady is talking about membership of the commission, does she believe that it is absolutely imperative that that must include someone with a working knowledge of the Parliaments and Assemblies of the United Kingdom, so that they can advise about possible knock-on consequences? She mentioned financial points, but there could be others, so it is imperative that someone on the commission has full knowledge of the Parliaments, legislatures and Assemblies of the UK.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman raises important questions, and we will want to know who will serve on the commission.

If the commission recommends changes to procedure, will they be binding on us, or will we have the opportunity to debate them? How will its recommendations fit in with the draft Bill on changes to the other place, because that could involve important consequences? When we have raised the West Lothian question over the past few months, I have been concerned that some ministerial replies have linked it to the proposed changes to membership of the other place. Whatever one’s view of those changes, we all agree that they are unlikely to be made quickly. During this Parliament, the resolution of the West Lothian question, to use today’s shorthand—or the English question—is more urgent than reform of the other Chamber, so I would not want progress on this issue to be delayed due to the necessarily slow progress of legislation to reform the other place.

I reiterate that the Minister has been exceptionally helpful and insightful, and while I welcome yesterday’s announcement about the commission’s establishment, the written ministerial statement contained a lot of unanswered questions. I therefore again ask the crucial question whether any legislation that might be required to enact the commission’s recommendations will be in the next Queen’s Speech. We cannot delay dealing with this point for much longer. If the commission recommends legislative changes, they need to be in the next Queen’s Speech, so that they can be tackled in the next parliamentary Session. As we have heard, these complex issues will require time for consideration, but following the process, I would want any necessary changes to tackle the remaining unanswered English constitutional issues to be in place before the next general election. The Bill has already had an impact.

Thomas Docherty: The hon. Lady makes a compelling argument in support of her position, but she has not addressed the position of Secretaries of State and Ministers. As part of the process that she wishes to put in place, does she think that Members of this House and the other place who are considered to be Scottish, Welsh or from Northern Ireland should not be allowed to serve as Ministers in a Department or, if they are Ministers, to vote on their own Department’s legislation?

Harriett Baldwin: I am sure that the commission will want to consider that important question. I have proposed a modest approach, so the hon. Gentleman is asking a question that is way above my pay grade. My Bill contains a modest suggestion that is based on the accumulated wisdom of the democracy taskforce and those members of the Justice Committee at the time of its 2009 report.

I know that the Minister is aware of the controversy about which I have spoken, given his intention to address the matter through the commission, but even if he cannot give us a complete answer today, we will all want to hear from him that there is a sense of urgency about resolving the situation during this Parliament. I remind colleagues that the Bill is the only vehicle available for hon. Members who want this great constitutional issue to be addressed. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s replies to my questions but, for the time being, I commend the Bill to the House.

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