by Paul Goodman
The second reading of Harriett Baldwin's Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill took place in the Commons yesterday. Beneath its unstirring title lurks an emotive subject – namely, how to right the wrongs inflicted on England by Labour's devolution settlement.
Baldwin's solution is what she called "a lower-strength version of English votes for English laws". However, I don't want so much to explore her bill – or Malcolm Rifkind's detailed account of his long-standing proposals, or Jacob Rees-Mogg's probing speech against the bill, or others in favour of it – as probe the Government's view.
The Conservative manifesto said –
"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."
The Coalition Agreement picked up this ball, and kicked it into the long grass, as follows –
"We will establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question."
Baldwin quoted this commitment, and then added, tactfully but pointedly –
"On 26 October last year, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister in this Chamber when the commission would be established, and I was told that it would be established by the end of 2010. However, it became apparent on the final sitting day of 2010 that the commission had not been established, and I again put the question to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), the Minister on duty, who said that
“the Government will make an announcement on the commission in the new year. I am happy to confirm that we do indeed mean 2011. That is very much part of our programme for next year.”—[Official Report, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1338.]
If nothing else, given the fragile life chances of private Members’ Bills, I am pleased to use today’s debate to encourage the Government to advance their own business."
A few moments later, Chris Chope intervened on Baldwin, and asked, just as pointedly (but less tactfully) –
"Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this Bill. She describes the issue as complex. Does she understand why it is so complex that the Government have not even been able to set up a commission to look into it? Surely, that should not be beyond the capability of the Deputy Prime Minister. Has she been able to find out why that has not been done?
Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend asks a somewhat cheeky question. I am sympathetic to the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)—a constituency neighbour of mine—has had a rather busy last couple of weeks. I am giving him a little slack because of that, but I agree that it is important to keep pressing for the establishment of the commission."
Later, Mark Harper replied to the debate on behalf of the Government and – having been intervened on by Chope – went on to say later:
"Although the coalition parties came up with very different solutions to the West Lothian question, both parties consider it important to attempt to answer it, and neither party believes that it is possible to answer it by ceasing to ask it. We consider it a serious question that will be best tackled when we can tackle it in a calm and reasonable manner rather than waiting for a crisis.
I can confirm that we will set up the commission this year, as, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire established through her perceptive questioning. We had hoped to make announcements to the House at an earlier stage, but I look forward to making them in the not-too-distant future, and the commission will then be able to consider the ideas that have been advanced today. Hon. Members have effectively made bids to participate, either as members of the commission or in giving evidence to it. I hope that it will arrive at solutions that we can subsequently debate."
This brought Chope to his feet –
"Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I must say that I am disappointed that the Minister was not more forthcoming about the commitment in the coalition agreement to establishing a commission. As he and other Members have observed, this issue is extremely complicated, so why are we now delaying even the appointment of the people who will consider it? We have already delayed for far too long. The original commitment was that the commission would be established before the end of 2010, but the Minister now expects us to accept as a big deal the information that he will make an announcement before the end of this year…
…I would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on what I am about to say. Indeed, the reason I am able to speak after him is that he will not be able to comment on it. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of my hon. Friend’s Department and is the person who can give the yea or nay to whether the commission is to be set up and when, has not got his heart in it. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell the Deputy Prime Minister that in the extra time that he will have next week, now that he has cancelled his trip to South America, he should give serious consideration to getting on with working out who will be on the commission and what will be its scope and remit. Surely the commission should be set up now, so that it can get to work before all the other stuff that is coming along is before the House. The last written answer on the issue says:
“Careful consideration is ongoing as to the timing, composition, scope and remit of the Commission to consider the… question.”
Some of us were not born yesterday. It is obvious that this is a stalling exercise by the Government. There was an unholy compromise in the coalition agreement but the Deputy Prime Minister is not even delivering on that compromise. He may realise that it could have implications for his party. There is no point, if the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have different views on the matter, trying to paper over the cracks. Why do we not get on and appoint the commission? Perhaps the coalition cannot even agree who could be on it, or what its scope and remit would be.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission
“will need to take account of our proposals to reform the House of Lords”.
Well, what has happened to those? We were told that a draft Bill would be published before Christmas. We have not seen that yet. We might be waiting another year or so before those proposals emerge.
The written answer goes on to say that the commission will need to take account of
“the changes being made to the way this House does business”.
There will be further changes to the way the House does business when the Backbench Business Committee is able to look at both Government legislation and Back-Bench business, and we are told that that will not start until the third year of this Parliament—another recipe for delay.
The written answer says that the commission will have to consider
“amendments to the devolution regimes”.
We know that a referendum will be held shortly in Wales, but why do we need to wait for the outcome of that before we set up the body that will look into these complex issues? There is then a reference to the fact that there is
“the Scotland Bill presently before the House”.
The written answer concludes; it is similar to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said today:
“We will make an announcement later this year.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 549W.]
It does not even say that the commission will be set up later this year…
…I remain suspicious about the motives of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think that he is stalling seriously on the issue. If the Bill goes into Committee it will give all hon. Members the opportunity to keep the pressure on the Government to meet what was a pretty meaningless commitment in the coalition agreement anyway. At least it would be something.
Mr Harper: I know that my hon. Friend is not perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the coalition Government but I think that he sees mischief where there is none. The clear message from the thoughtful speeches of all Members today is that the issue is complicated. If the Government are to deal with it calmly and sensibly and in a manner that does not put the Union at risk, we must proceed thoughtfully and properly. However, I have given a clear commitment that we need to deal with the matter and answer the question. Therefore, I urge him to be a bit more generous in spirit.
Mr Chope: I am generous by nature but I would be even more generous if my hon. Friend had explained why it has turned out to be impossible for the Government to appoint the commission before Christmas, as they originally intended.
Chope wound up as follows –
"That is what leads me to conclude—I think any rational observer would conclude this—that the Government have not got their heart in this. They are hopelessly split between the Liberal Democrat agenda and the Conservative party agenda, which was clearly set out in our manifesto. We compromised on that in the coalition agreement, and we have given the tools whereby that compromise might be taken forward, namely the setting up of the commission, to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. I do not think he has got his heart in trying to achieve any progress on this matter, however. I sympathise enormously with the Minister, but I hope that by getting the Bill into Committee we will be able to maintain the pressure. That is why I support the Bill."
I've quoted Chope at length because, whatever one thinks of his view of the issues, his take on the process is surely right – or at least, it's hard to think of any other reason for delay. There are good and bad aspects of the Coalition: as I've written many times, the good, in my view, outweigh the bad, and the Coalition should be supported.
But this issue throws up a serious problem, at two levels. The first, unashamedly, is a party political one. The Party won more votes in England than Labour even in 2005. It won an absolute majority of seats in England in 2010, gaining 36 more seats than the other parties combined – an outcome I tested here, though admittedly in the context of Labour gaining a majority because of its strength elsewhere.
Before 1997, the right response to this outcome would have been: hard luck – there's more or less a level playing field for all parts of the Union. Post-1997 and Labour's devolution settlement, such an answer won't do. MPs from Scotland can now vote on England's business, but not vice-versa. Proposals for further Scottish and Welsh devolution look to tilt the imbalance further. And Northern Ireland has its Assembly.
In a sparsely-attended House, Baldwin's bill passed by 19 votes to 17. One Labour MP, Kate Hoey, supported the bill, which was otherwise backed by Conservatives only. One Tory MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, opposed the bill.