Lord Falconer's 'English Parliament' Interview

Scotland Act, Donal Dewars Copy.This was the Interview from Friday 10th March 2006 on 'The Today Programme'. Apologies for any transcription errors - please comment if you find any! I've taken the time to transcribe it as I plan to quote from it when I write a letter or two in the future.

I previously wrote to Harriet Harman (no reply received), and Number 10 who referred me to a vote in January 2004, where a particular solution was rejected, but the problem remained.

Anyway, on to the interview.

JOHN HUMPHREYS: 10 past eight. When historians judge the Blair Government they'll certainly consider devolution. Scotland has it's own parliament, Wales it's own assembly and the United Kingdom is demonstrably different because of it. But England is unchanged and that raises profound constitutional questions, not least why should a Scottish MP be able to vote on English matters when a English MP can't vote on Scottish matters, and a Scottish MP can't vote on Scottish matters, devolved matters, himself unless he's a member of the Scottish parliament. The solution many believe is a Parliament for England. The Scots, the government, have never been keen on the idea but now it's about to rule it out forever. "Not today, not tomorrow, not in any kind of future we can see," that's what The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer will say today, and he is with me. But let's hear first from his shadow on the Conservative benches Oliver Heald, good morning to you. OLIVER HEALD: Good Morning.

JH: Er.. English Parliament?

OH: Well we've gone erm, we haven't gone in that direction...

Comment: This reveals an error by the BBC, which could leave them open to allegations of bias - they did not have anybody on that supports an English Parliament. Personally I see that as nothing more than oversight.

OH: ... but we have said that members in English constituencies should decide in the House of Commons what happens in England about the issues which are devolved in Scotland, and the Lord Chancellor is talking later today to a conference of the ESRC who've done some very interesting research...

JH: (interrupting) The SRC?

OH: Yes. And er...

JH: The SRC being?

OH: Er, oh, the Economic... The Economic and Social Research Council.

JH:Right.

OH: And er they they've found four very interesting findings which I think help our argument. The first is that there's a strengthening in the feeling of English identity since devolution. The second is that the English have different policy agendas from the Scots in areas such as Health and Education and next week in the Education bill we may well see it go through because of the votes of Scottish, er, members of Parliament. The third is the failure of English development policy and they're making the point that there hasn't been a proper look at England as a whole, with London and the South East going ahead, but the rest of the country having disparities. And then the thir - the fourth point that they make is there is a lack of proper arrangements between the UK government and the nations of the UK. So what we're saying is 'look, let the English Members of Parliament from the English constituencies sit down together and decide together what's best for England in the context of the issues dissol-devolved to Scotland'.

JH: But wha-wha what could they decide? I mean what powers do you think they or wha (stumbles) What changes could they make?

OH: Well, for example, I mean, on development we've set up this week a, a task force under Michael Heseltine that's going to look at the way in which in our English cities, and we would hope to develop this in other parts of the UK with agreement there, but er, how we, how we make our cities work well for those who are still disadvantaged there.

Comment: This is completely missing the point

JH: But that's still pretty modest stuff and it doesn't address this fundamental issue.

Comment: Well spotted, John.

OH: Health and Education. Both issues which are dealt with in Scotland and Wales er, where we think that, er, there are different policies in England. I mean, for example, the research shows that a lot of the English are prepared to look at ideas of independent, not for profit, er, solutions in Health and Education where as this is not popular in Scotland and Wales, and so I think there is a distinctive English agenda which we could develop together.

JH: All right, thank you very much for that. Lord Falconer...

LORD FALCONER: Hello

JH: Lord Chancellor, Good Morning.

LF: Good Morning.

JH: A distinctive English agenda, do you accept that that exists?

LF: Yes, I can see that there could be a distinctive English agenda, and indeed the effect of devolution has been that in Scotland and in Wales different policies have been pursued because that's what devolution has allowed. But I think the criticial question is what most preserves the Union. The reason for devolution was that the Scots and the Welsh felt that policies could be imposed upon them for which there was little or no support in Scotland or Wales, that's why devolution was popular. Once you create..

Comment: And we now have a situation where a government which, like it or not, earned fewer votes than the Conservatives in England - but a majority of seats, can impose legislation where there is little support in England. It can do this with the help of Scottish and Welsh votes where such legislation may not have an effect. (I am not referring to a specific piece of legislation, but rather to the principle).

JH: Up to a point popular, let's be clear, it only just got through in Wales,but anyway alright...

LF: It just got through in Wales in a referendum, it got through very very substantially in Scotland, the effect of devolution is to allow a distinctively Scottish and Welsh agenda to be pursued. In England there's 80% of the population, there's just over 80% of the members of parliament. There is absolutely no need for the sort of protection for England which comes for the Scots and the Welsh by having their own parliamentary assembly.

Comment: Until one remembers that Scottish MPs and Welsh MPs can hold the balance of power, and that they're overwhelmingly labour.

JH: But if they feel there is a need, and if for instance, you say there's no need for protection, but if we find the education bill going through bec.., an education bill that affects English voters in a way that it doesn't affect Scottish voters, if it goes through because of Scottish votes, that's a democratic - not just democratic deficit, a democratic absurdity.

Comment: Well done, John, let's see how he answers THAT!

LF: I think the one thing that one can be sure of is that the education bill will not go through only because of Scottish votes.

Comment: Ah, the crystal ball response. Denying the possibility will occur, and sidestepping the general point.

JH: Well you can't be sure of that, we've had legis (inaudible)

LF: (interrupting) I can't be completely sure but I.. but I... but I....

JH: (speaking over LF) Absolutely not, but that's the point.

LF: Well anyway, let us see what happens next week. That seems to be the least likely of all alternatives.

Comment: Choosing to ignore the point completely

JH: Nonetheless it remains a possibility and that is the point, it's the principle involved.

Comment: Quite right

LF: (Speaking over JH) It certainly remains... It certainly remains the possibility that bills could go through with Scottish votes and Welsh votes and a minority of English MPs supporting it,

Comment: Well said, Lord Falconer. Can you please address this issue now?

LF: but because so many of the population and so many of the MPs are from England it is inconceivable that political parties would not pitch their appeal to the English. Therefore the chance of it happening is very, very slight.

Comment: Shall I take that as a 'no'?

LF: That that is so is reflected by the fact that there is no demand at all for devolution to England or the English MPs only being able to vote on English issues.

Comment: This is a clear nonsense, given that for the statement to be disproven there would only need to be one voice demanding devolution for England - and he had just followed Oliver Heald demanding English votes for English matters. As I write the BBC poll on this page has had 2559 votes, with over 71% voting yes. If he claims a slip of the tongue, meaning to say 'little' demand, then I'd want to see evidence - perhaps a referendum. Citing the rejection of the elected regional assembly in the north west doesn't mean that the English don't want a parliament, it can be taken to mean that they simply don't want to be sliced up into regions.

JH: (Interrupting) But you would accept...

LF: There was real demand for, for example, a Scottish Parliament. No such pressure in England.

Comment: Even if such a statement is correct - which I doubt - the problem of the anomaly remains, and this can only make the pressure grow with time.

JH: Yeah, but, but you're ignoring the anomaly, and it is a clear anomaly isn't it?

LF: It is a clear anomaly, yes,

Comment: Well, it's progress from Harriet 'What Anomalies' Harman's position last year. Does that mean you're going to address it?

LF: and I think the right question to ask yourself, how do you deal with that anomaly in a way that most promotes the Union? And I believe if what you have is two tiers of MPs, some only entitled to vote on English and others not entitled to vote on English Issues, what you do is promote seperation. It's one step toward an English parliament.

Comment: That's a no, isn't it?

JH: Well then you'd... well why NOT have an English parliament?

LF: Because England is 80% of this country it would be by miles the most powerful institution, more powerful almost than any national parliament.

Comment: This is patent absurdity - the westminster parliament would be more powerful than the English parliament, as it is more powerful than the Scottish parliament. Also, comparing the English and Scottish parliaments is not meaningful as they would have different spheres of influence.

JH: Well but you'd still have a federal parliament, you'd still have a federal government. I mean...

LF: You'd have, you'd have a federal government dealing with certain issues, you'd have a parliament for 80% of the population dwarfing all other institutions.

Comment: There he goes again. I fail to see why that is, in and of itself, a problem.

JH: Does, does it not bother you that the notion of Britishness, and I use the word advisedly because it is a word that was used on this programme by Professor Charlie Geoffrey who carried out research for this very organisation, the Economic Research Council, that that is disappearing?

LF: I don't think it's disappearing. I mean, I'm Scottish, I feel Scottish. I don't regard that as remotely inconsistant...

Comment: This doesn't address the question at all.

JH: (interrrupting) Well you live, yeah, you're Scottish, you live in London you are a member of this government, you are a very senior member of this government, I mean, yeah, of course....

LF: It doesn't prevent me feeling Scottish...

JH: No it doesn't prevent...

LF: Nor does it in any way diminish my commitment to the United Kingdom, you're Welsh!

JH: Yes?

LF:You don't feel remotely incon... there's no inconsistency in your feelings by feeling both Welsh and British.

JH: But I don't feel able to speak because I feel a certain way on behalf of the population as a whole. And the fact is if...

LF: (inaudible) you don't you don't

JH: If the English are beginning themselves to feel less British, that's the important point. Not whether you as a Scot or I as a Welshman feel less British. It's whether the English feel less British and more English because they resent the fact that they don't have what the Scots and the English (sic) have got, which is their own parliaments or assemblies

LF: There's no evidence that they resent the fact that there is no English Parliament, indeed quite the reverse. Equally feeling profoundly English or Scottish is not remotely inconsistant with having a strong feeling about the need to continue the Union.

Comment: This is silly on so many levels. Firstly the pedantic point - I resent it, I'm English - point disproved. ('Little' evidence would require a survey and would not be so easily refuted... absolutist statements are easily disproved unless they are 100% correct). The BBC poll on the topic is running at over 2 to 1 in favour. Putting this to one side, the point about continuing the union is not relevant to the English parliament. Falconer has NOT demonstrated why and English parliament is necessarily bad for the Union whereas a Scottish parliament is not. Indeed, to my mind it should be parliaments for all the countries of the Union - or none at all. Inconsistency can only damage the Union in the long term. It also is putting up a straw man, the main point cannot be defended, and so a false premise is presented which is knocked down in the stead of the real argument. I support an English parliament because of the Union, not in spite of it. I would be strongly opposed to breaking up the Union - however, I don't think that within the Union we should have disparities in terms of representation. This is why I do not support the existence of the Scottish Parliament (for example) if there is no English Parliament - it should be both, or neither. In the same way, this is why I support electoral reform - someone living in a safe seat has a less important vote in an election than someone in a marginal. Indeed, in every election I have ever voted in, the local result has been a foregone conclusion, I have always lived in safe seats - and I have never been courted by candidates.

JH: All right. This is one of the things that you changed, one of the big things that you've changed. Something else that you said you would change fundamentally is the House of Lords, the way it's made up, and indeed you have made changes. One of the changes you've made, it now seems, is that if you want to buy a peerage you can do so, under this government.

LF: Abolutely not. No.

JH: Well...

LF: And indeed what we've done in relation to the Lords, or the... and with the agreement of the Lords is that there's an independent committee chaired by Lord Stephenson who is a cross bencher, not Labour or Conservative, though every political party is represented on this committee and they vet all those people who may come into the Lords and that's an entirely appropriate way of determining whether or not propriety is observed in relation to people going to the Lords.

JH: Let me give you the findings of another independent commission, the Power Enquiry, chaired I believe by a Labour person if I'm not mistaken, indeed a Scot!

LF: (snorts)

JH: ..and er. and this

LF: Baroness Kennedy

JH: Indeed. This pointed out that every donor who had given more than one million pounds to Labour had received a knighthood or a peerage.

Comment: I think the rest of this will speak for itself - Lord Falconer has not done himself any favours. I wonder if any big labour donors are going to NOT get a peerage or honour in the immediate future as a reaction to this? In this Times article the author writes 'In the first place he stated that it was "absolutely not" possible to buy an honour from Tony Blair. It is. I know people who have. The late Lord Montague of Oxford boasted the fact to me.'

LF: Well, as far as the propriety of going to the House of Lords, as far as the propriety of getting honours is concerned there are independent bodies that scrutinise whether or not it's a proper appointment, and that is how it should be.

JH: But it is the perception of the thing. If I know that I can get a peerage by bunging you a mill.. I might do it! I.. I'd rustle up a million pounds from somewhere and buy a peerage!

LF: I don't take the view that making a contribution to a political party in which you believe debarrs you....

JH: No

LF: ... from any honour.

JH: Ah

LF: And if you accept that, and you seem to accept it because you just said 'Yes'

Comment: At no point did he say 'Yes', let's not let facts get in the way. Carry on.

LF: .. then what you need is some body to ensure that there is propriety in the honour or the appointment to the Lords, but you should not be prevented because you, for example, believe that Labour should be supported over the years it was in the wilderness.

LF pauses.

LF and JH speak simultaneously. LF: That should not debarr you in any way at all... JH: ... but does it not bother you... doesn't..

LF: ... from being a peer.

JH: Doesn't the perception bother you that here we have a situation that if you give a million pounds to the labour party you're guaranteed a peerage or a knighthood? Guaranteed! This is what the Power enquiry itself has said.

LF: You are not guaranteed a peerage...

JH: Every single donor who has done it... let's not look at what you believe to be the case, let's look at the facts of the case, as you as a lawyer might say. Every single donor who's given more than a million smackers to Labour has got either a peerage or a knighthood.

LF: Well, there are independent bodies that look at the proprieties of it. You agree, we both agree, contributing to a political party should not debarr you from an honour or...

JH: And it doesn't bother you that, to go back to the question, that everybody who's doled out a million has got something as a result of it? That doesn't bother you?

LF: Well, it's right across the political spectrum, people who contribute to political parties...

JH: The perception of it?

LF: Well...

(Simultaneously) JH: The people out there.... LF: You have a choi...

JH: who say all I've got to do to get into the House of Lords is to give Tony a million quid and I'm in.

LF: You have a choice, John. You either say people who give money to political parties can't get an honour. And I don't think that'd be right or sensible.

JH: What about erm, the... and I don't want to talk about Tessa Jowell because that as far as you're concerned, you'll say that's done and dusted. But what about the fact that it's not right for the Prime Minister to be judge and jury in his own court?

LF: Well, he is the person that appoints ministers. He is the person accountable to parliament. There is no possible basis for any suggestion that somebody other than the Prime Minister should decide whether a minister should stay or go. Of course, he can seek aid from the Cabinet Secretary in relation to the facts, but ultimately he is responsible. Look at what people said when the independent standards board decided that the democratically elected Ken Livingstone should be suspended from office for four weeks. Ultimately it is the electorate who decide. That means the Prime Minister must decide who are his ministers and who are not.

JH: Sir Alastair Graham, Chairman of the standards committee wants an independent official to advice ministers on their code of conduct. Surely in the interests of transparency that's what should happen.

LF: There is an independent official who can advice on those matters that is the cabinet secretary, but ultimately the decision must be taken by the Prime Minister or there isn't proper accountability.

JH: Alright, let us leave these very very weighty issues and turn to something that's even weightier...

They finished the interview with a discussion about the story of the man that was fined 50 pounds for dropping junk mail into a litter bin.


This interview prompted several posts: