Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I have received your message that you wish me to be relatively brief, Mr Speaker, and I shall do my best to abide by that and not model myself on Gladstone, whom we have had earlier reference to, and who Disraeli said was a
“sophistical rhetorician, inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity.”
I shall try to avoid verbosity and inebriation at the same time.
It has been said in this debate that this process has been rushed. That things have been rushed is the classic objection to almost any constitutional change, and it is one I am fond of using personally, but on this occasion it would only be rushed for a member of the Roman Curia or perhaps part of the mandarin class of imperial China. The issue we are considering has been debated since the 1880s. I do not think a period of 130 years is unduly rushed. The West Lothian question itself was raised by the hon. baronet the former Member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, in the 1970s, but we have had plenty of time to consider and deliberate on these issues.
The second major objection is that two classes of Members are being created. If I believed that to be true, I would oppose this proposal because I think there is a unity within this House that is of fundamental constitutional importance, and, looking at the SNP Benches opposite and considering the contribution its Members have already made since their election in May, it is striking how important that point is: every Member needs to be free to participate in the debates on the laws that we make. That is a reasonable and fair principle.
In a characteristically forthright speech from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), we have heard that the Scotland Bill does not give Scottish MPs the same type of veto as English MPs, but I think that is wrong. It is a misunderstanding of what the Scotland Bill is doing, because if this Standing Order were already in place, the Scotland Bill would be devolving the issues to Scotland and to English MPs in this House at the same point. Yesterday we debated the Crown Estates and how they would be a devolved matter to the Scottish Parliament. If that goes through the House of Lords, it will be a matter that in England will only be voted on by English MPs, or at least they will have a veto on it. What is devolved to Scotland is equally and simultaneously devolved to England. That seems perfectly reasonable.
Ian C. Lucas: Why does the double voting only apply to MPs from England?
Mr Rees-Mogg: The double voting does not only apply to Members from England; it applies to Members from England, Wales and potentially Northern Ireland, if the issue is devolved to one Assembly but not the others. If there is a matter that is not devolved to Wales, Welsh MPs would be involved in that second lock on legislation. That is right and fair, because it ensures that those who represent the relevant constituencies have a say on how the law is made and a block on it, but, crucially, they cannot make the law unless all UK MPs support it in a majority.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): What would happen in the case of a welfare reform Bill, which we would be told applied to England and Wales because, on paper, Northern Ireland would have welfare reform devolved? As we see from the Treasury, this is entirely karaoke legislation and the money will not flow unless the Assembly passes the legislation that has already been passed here. Would Northern Ireland Members be told that they did not count in the double majority for welfare legislation?
Mr Rees-Mogg: The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point. I think this is covered in the Standing Order, but it may need further revision. The Standing Order makes provision for the Speaker to certify that where a matter is about to be devolved, it has already been devolved and therefore in the legislation should require an English vote. It therefore follows logically that if a matter is about to be undevolved, because the relevant devolved Assembly cannot come to a decision, the Speaker ought to certify differently. It may be that the Standing Order needs an amendment to clarify that, but it is certainly within the spirit of the Standing Order as currently written. It is ensuring an equality of all Members of Parliament because no legislation can pass without a majority in this House.
Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who was nearly the Member for Central Fife many years ago. Just to make sure that I have understood this proposal, does it also apply to Member of the other place? Or are we creating a situation in which Scottish MPs who successfully retain the trust of their constituents and get re-elected to this place become disqualified from legislating, whereas former Scottish MPs who get kicked out of here but then get appointed to another place are rewarded for their failure by being allowed to legislate on matters from which the democratically elected MPs are excluded?
Mr Rees-Mogg: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to go down the path of the elected Scottish peers, which there used to be in the other place, but that is not relevant to this debate, which is on the process within the House of Commons and its Standing Orders. He does, however, bring me neatly on to why I think it is so crucial that this is done through Standing Orders, not through legislation.
John Redwood: Is not the asymmetry in the new proposals still against England, not against Scotland? The Scottish Parliament can vote any law it likes within its powers, whereas English MPs will not be able to do that in this Parliament.
Mr Rees-Mogg: That is of the greatest importance. The English must recognise that if we want the Union to maintain, we must not require exact parity. The United Kingdom is 85% English, and the English demanding exact parity is the way to destroy the Union. The English, in this context, have to be generous. It is important that we remember that; otherwise we destroy the Union that we are seeking to protect. That is why Standing Orders are important—they can be reversed. If the Opposition Members had a majority, whatever form of coalition it took, they could suspend Standing Orders on a single vote to proceed with the business they want—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is shaking his finger at me and getting frightfully exercised, but we see Standing Orders suspended on a regular basis. Standing Orders have been suspended to rush through Bills in a single day, and they are suspended almost weekly on minor matters so that deferred Divisions do not take place. Standing Orders are not constitutional holy writ; they are a mild way of making an alteration.
We must avoid the temptation of taking this process towards an English Parliament. An English Parliament would usurp the United Kingdom Parliament. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) shouts, “Why?” She might want it, because it would create the division of the United Kingdom that the SNP seeks. Those of us who are English and Unionists must be careful of the siren voice of that exact equality—that exact parity—that might be sought by those who favour independence in Scotland.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Rees-Mogg: Mr Speaker wanted me to do eight minutes. I am already over so I must desist.