West Lothian Question
March 29, 2011
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I have quite significant sympathy with elements of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, particularly as so many of the Welsh-related issues in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill were not even debated in the House, which was highly regrettable. Equally, surely he must understand that one of the problems with the West Lothian question is the idea of over-representation of particular parts of the UK. Does he feel that it is sustainable for Wales to be so massively over-represented in the United Kingdom Parliament, given its population? Does he feel that it would be wrong to have a reduction on a pro rata basis, to ensure that all parts of the UK were equally represented in this place?
Mr Field: Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that there is an equally deeply felt concern in England? Not only is there a devolved settlement that gives the Scots a Parliament, and Northern Ireland and Wales an Assembly with additional powers, but there is a relative over-representation, in the sense of fewer constituents for MPs. Does he not see that there is one leg-a rather important leg-of the United Kingdom that feels very much under-represented and unloved, and that that is one of the reasons why the West Lothian question is becoming more high-profile in England?
Mr Field: The right hon. Gentleman has touched on the idea that perhaps we need to move, in time, towards some sort of federal structure, and I do not disagree with that, but the contributions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and the Minister go to the heart of the point, particularly on the health issue. Ultimately, it is a fiction that we have a national health service in the UK. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have four separate national health services, one for each of the four constituent parts of the UK. Therein is one of our key problems. Ultimately, we have to be a little more open with the public at large about how that structure operates. It is to a large extent inconsistent, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) points out, but it is not enough simply for us to say that we put the UK’s interests first.
There are issues around transport and policing in London on which I, as a London MP, have very little say, and I feel uneasy about that, to a certain extent. I feel uneasy about speaking on some of those issues, given the devolution to the London government. That is not an entire devolution, in the way that it is for the right hon. Gentleman; he does not represent a single person on health matters, because they have been entirely devolved to the Welsh Assembly.
Mr Field: The right hon. Gentleman must accept that it was precisely that resentment in reverse that led to the devolution settlement. In the run-up to the 1997 election, his party recognised that 18 years of Conservative rule had dismayed many people in Scotland and Wales, and that is why we went down the devolution route. He cannot have it both ways. That was an important part of the momentum that led to the devolution settlement that we have today.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I shall speak briefly, because I know that many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing it, because it is important, and such constitutional issues are close to all our hearts. There are no easy solutions.
A major issue would have blown up after the last general election-the right hon. Gentleman alluded to this-if the Conservatives had tried to form a minority Administration. The coalition now has 12 MPs in Scotland, whereas the Conservative party alone has only a single MP, and has won only three contests in total in the last four general elections. The West Lothian issue would have come much more to the fore, and perhaps that would have been good thing.
I hope that the Minister will say a little about what the Government are planning to do in this regard. The past nine months have been a period of substantial constitutional change, and I share many of the reservations on the Opposition Benches, as my voting record shows. I abstained on Second and Third Readings of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill, but I voted against the Government on some occasions. I was uneasy about the Bill’s being seen as slightly partisan along the lines that the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. I was one of three Conservative MPs who voted to retain the overall number of constituencies at 650, although I would try to equalise them, and we are now moving towards that.
We should consider the whole constitutional issue much more broadly, and it is regrettable that we are making significant changes to the House of Commons when we all know in our hearts that this rapid pace of change will not be represented in any of the changes that will be presented to the House of Lords. There is much speculation that the Deputy Prime Minister, particularly if the AV vote does not go the way he wants, will be given the House of Lords issue and rush ahead with it in the second half of the year. I think we all know that not only is there division in the House of Commons, there is probably rather less division that we would like in the House of Lords, and I suspect that many life peers on both sides will want to retain their position, and will stall on any fundamental reforms.
Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman seems to measure his party’s support in Wales and Scotland by the number of MPs it has. In two of the last four general elections, the Conservative party had 20% of the vote in Wales without a single MP. Would he not be better engaged in proving that first-past-the-post is a rotten, out-of-date electoral system, and campaigning for AV to obtain justice for his party?
Mr Field: However much the hon. Gentleman would like to tempt me in that direction, I will not go down that path as it does not apply to today’s debate. However, he makes a serious point. In many ways, devolution was the saving of the Conservative party in Wales in the immediate aftermath of 1997, or at least after 1999 with the Welsh Assembly elections. We now have a stalwart group of Welsh MPs, roughly one quarter of whom are present today-that is until the boundaries change. [Laughter.] I will not be unkind to my colleagues. The Minister is blanching at the prospect of a cross-border Welsh-English seat if some people have their way.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will say just a few words about what I consider would be the ideal situation. It is very much a pipe dream and an ideal. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said in his earlier contribution. We need to move towards the idea of an English Parliament. We do not need a whole lot more politicians-I hasten to add-but I would like to see all parts of the United Kingdom come under a federal umbrella, with identical powers for the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English Parliaments. There would also be the United Kingdom Parliament into which Members of the constituent parts would organise themselves on a pro rata basis. The United Kingdom Parliament would look at bigger strategic economic issues such as foreign affairs and defence. Many things that are already taken for granted in Wales and Scotland, such as policies on transport, health and a whole range of issues that are dealt with through the Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, would be tackled at national level. That is important because a huge amount of resentment is building up in England about what is seen as an unfair arrangement. Having a Conservative-led Government has probably helped to assuage that in the short term, but I fear that sense of resentment will become stronger as we go forward.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman presents a measured and characteristically sensible argument. Does he agree that England is a large country containing very disparate regions? I was born in the north-east of England, which in many respects has more in common with Wales than with Essex. Therefore, the type of targeted health policy that makes sense in Wales would not make sense in England because the needs of the various regions are so different that they could not be adequately dealt with by an English Parliament.
Mr Field: There may be something in what the hon. Gentleman says. I was describing my ideal, but I recognise the chief concern that, unlike any other federation, having a single group that contains 85% of the land mass or population, and its Members, would present some difficulties. The Federal Republic of Germany was set up as a post-war construct. Even after the reintegration of East Germany in 1990, there were essentially smaller units. There are particular areas of power-for example, Bavaria is strong due to historical factors and is a powerful Land, and North-Rhine Westphalia is the big industrial heartland, but even the smaller states have an important role to play. Safeguards exist in the United States of America in that each state has two Senate seats, irrespective of size. That means that states work closely together despite great disparities in size and economic power. I accept that point, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, coming from the north-east, there is not much love or great affinity between that region and the area of the United Kingdom immediately to the north. By the same token, when the people of the north-east had the opportunity some seven years ago to sign up for their own government, that move was overwhelmingly defeated. It had been anticipated that that region would have been the most likely to go down the route of a devolved English Government.
Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I think the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. Does he agree that the major problems we have had with devolution are because we have never looked at it from a constitutional point of view? Perhaps there is an argument for some sort of written constitution with a Bill of Rights and a clear separation of powers.
Mr Field: There is very much an argument for that. It is not particularly a Conservative party idea, but I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The nub of his point is correct. We have tended to look at devolution as a political settlement. In 1997, after 18 years of Conservative rule from which the Scots and Welsh felt disfranchised, political momentum allowed devolution to go ahead in a way that would not have happened 20 years earlier.
Chris Ruane: If the logic of the Conservative party-not necessarily the hon. Gentleman’s point of view-is that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should not be allowed to vote on health and education issues that affect London, should that logic be carried forward to London MPs who have an assembly?
Mr Field: I think it must be to an extent. As I have said, I feel slightly uneasy about issues of policing and transportation. In the dim and distant past when I was on the Front Bench of my party, I was asked to be a transport spokesman. Because of this issue I did not feel able to take up such a role, and I was offered something else instead. It is an issue, although it is a more byzantine and mixed situation. The Home Secretary still has overall control of London policing-
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about these issues. From my point of view-this is my individual point of view, rather than that of my party-it is regrettable that we have not looked at all issues concerning the constitution so as to try and obtain a relatively logical patchwork. I accept that historical analysis of such matters means that logic is often thrown out of the window. The worry is that we have moved ahead with breakneck speed in a way that will have a big impact on the House of Commons and affect our relationship with our constituents and within our countries. The House of Lords has not been part and parcel of that, and 117 peers have been added at the same time as we needed to reduce the size of the House of Commons on cost grounds. That is illogical. We may have considerably more peers given that the coalition agreement mentions equalising the proportion of peers for each party based on the vote at the last general election. That suggests there will be another couple of hundred peers, and some older Members of the House of Lords are very hacked off at the idea of not getting a seat in their own Chamber. It is regrettable that we have not looked at that matter, and I hope that as part of the West Lothian question, we will look at all those constitutional issues together and try to obtain a position for the whole constitution over the years to come, including an analysis of the separation of powers referred to by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans).