Biography Chronology Home Search Speeches/Statements

1997 - Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the British Constitution

Below is Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the British Constitution, given on 20th February 1997.


PRIME MINISTER:

Madam Speaker Because of the large number of hon. Members who wish to speak, I have had to limit speeches - other than those from Front Benchers, of course-to 10 minutes throughout the debate.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) Last summer, the other place had a two-day debate on the constitution. It was a worthwhile and constructive occasion, and I hope that today will prove to be so as well.

We have no written constitution in this country - it evolves. It has changed in this Parliament, and it will change in the future. I agreed with the leader of the Labour party, when he said last week: ‘The idea that the British constitution should never change and evolve and develop is completely absurd.’ I entirely agree with that - of course it is right - and I made precisely the same point myself when speaking in Wales. The point is not whether our constitution should change, but how it should change and at what pace it should change.

We have given a new role to the Welsh and Scottish Grand Committees; we have devolved powers to schools and hospitals; and we have reformed procedures in this House and increased Government accountability to Select Committees. I am in favour of more change. We have agreed to set up a Northern Ireland Grand Committee similar to those for Scotland and Wales.

I favour further reform of the procedures in this House. We have set out our proposals to ensure that new legislation is better considered, with a two-year parliamentary programme and more draft legislation for consultation. As the two Houses are complementary, I see a case for similar examination of the other place. We will continue the process of improving public services, because we wish to give people more choice and opportunity.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister I want to make progress - I shall give way a little later. All that change has been gradual; it is sensible, and it has been thought through before it has been produced. We on this side of the House have always advocated a Europe of nations. Labour's plans would undermine the strength of the nation state. Like many on the continent, Labour seems to be advocating a Europe of the regions, but England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not regions - they are four nations within a united kingdom. A Europe of the regions would be the sure way to enable a bureaucracy to bypass national Governments. It is the wrong way forward, and it is not for us.

That is only one reason - it is by no means the principal reason - why I do not favour a tax-raising parliament for Scotland.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister If the right hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress, I undertake to give way later.

Mr. Benn It is on the European question.

The Prime Minister Oh, all right.

Mr. Benn May I ask the First Lord of the Treasury, in that capacity, what democratic justification there could be, in principle, for handing over his powers on public expenditure, taxation and interest rates to a central bank in Frankfurt, so that the responsibility that he now exercises - accountable to Parliament and the people - would no longer be exercised through the ballot box? Has he read the book of Genesis and of how Esau handed over his birthright for a mess of pottage, and has been remembered ever since as having made the biggest mistake of his life?

The Prime Minister I have, but I am not sure that I would draw a direct relationship between that story and the treaty of Rome, although the right hon. Gentleman might do so. There was a pained expression on the faces of the Labour Front Benchers as he asked his question. As he knows, if we had not obtained the opt-out that I obtained at Maastricht, we in this House would not have the option to make at some stage in the future the decision that the right hon. Gentleman wishes us to make.

Let me return to saying what I was about to turn to. I do not favour a tax-raising parliament for Scotland, or a toothless Welsh Assembly, or 10 regional assemblies, taking powers either from this House or from local government or from both - it is uncertain where they would come from. Nor do I favour unpicking the House of Lords, changing the voting system and ceding further powers from this House to Europe.

The Labour party has given in to the temptation to put party before country. [Interruption.] There is no nice way of expressing that, nor does there deserve to be. The plans drawn up by the Labour party, with the Liberal Democrats in tow, are a blueprint that would undermine the unity of the United Kingdom and erode the authority of this Parliament. As they stand, any Member of this House should be ashamed to endorse them.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) A moment ago, the Prime Minister recognised the nationality of Wales and Scotland, but the provisions that he suggested might be available for changing the government of those two countries were all encapsulated within this institution in London. Does that mean that, if the Conservative Government are elected to power, for however long they are in office, there will in effect be an English veto on any aspirations of Wales and Scotland to national autonomy, and that the only alternatives for Wales and Scotland are the status quo or full self-government?

The Prime Minister As the hon. Gentleman knows, the last time the people of Wales had the opportunity to choose, they chose by a majority of four to one not to have devolution, but to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The plan to set up an income-tax-raising parliament in Scotland, partly elected by proportional representation, on the bogus mandate of a referendum with two questions, before the legislation has even been considered, is deeply flawed. So is the plan to have an assembly in Wales without tax-raising powers, and a pre-legislative referendum with one question.

In essence, it is proposed that Parliament would be presented with what is little more than a public opinion poll and told to endorse it, however absurd examination of the subsequent proposals showed them to be; and if this Parliament exercised its constitutional right and radically changed the legislation, as well it might, there is no plan in the minds of the Labour party or the Liberal party for a subsequent referendum to discover whether that change would be acceptable. I believe that this is an abuse of the way in which constitutional change should be approached.

Mr. Tony Banks A moment ago, the Prime Minister talked about putting party before country. Is he not doing precisely that by keeping the whole country guessing about the date of the next general election? Is not that all about putting party before country? Does he not find it outrageous that one person should have the power to decide when the rest of the country will be allowed to vote? Would he support fixed-term Parliaments?

The Prime Minister A straight answer to the hon. Gentleman is no, and I will waste no more time on him.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister I will give way a little later, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

We have in the House constitutional parties that favour separatism - an independent Scotland and an independent Wales. Devolution plans, for them at least - and for others - cloak separatist ambitions. The Labour and Liberal parties may well believe that they are buying off the separatists. I believe that they are selling out to the separatists. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Let me now consider their plans for Scotland.

Of the 129 members of a Scottish Parliament -

Mr. Maxton rose -

The Prime Minister Just a minute. Of its 129 members - [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker Order.

The Prime Minister Of its 129 members, 56 would be placemen, drawn from lists approved by party leaders, with no accountability to constituents or responsibility for them. There would be gender quotas - a politically correct idea, which many people would find patronising.

There will be no revising chamber - no second chamber. The House of Lords would not be permitted to scrutinise Scottish legislation; neither would anything replace it. [Interruption.] I am pleased to see Labour Members hoot. Nor would anything replace it. Five million British subjects, on the threshold of a new millennium, would be brought under unicameral Government - the object of suspicion to every democrat for centuries. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is what they propose. No checks; no balances - that is the plan, and it is a complete rag-bag.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) rose

The Prime Minister I am sorry. I give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton).

Mr. Maxton As the Prime Minister is talking about devolution, will he explain why he is prepared to devolve power to Northern Ireland but not to Scotland and Wales?

The Prime Minister I shall come directly and in detail to Northern Ireland, to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. It is - [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] It is a fair point, and I will discuss it in detail.

If I may return for a moment to Scotland, the other question unanswered is whether, in any legislation, there is to be Royal Assent. I am not sure, and I hope that it can be made clear. Then, of course, there is the - [HON. MEMBERS: "Why should there be?"] I did not hear what was said; perhaps it was not worth hearing. Then there is the West Lothian question.

Mr. Home Robertson rose

The Prime Minister I wish to make a little progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

Mr. Home Robertson What about the East Lothian question?

The Prime Minister West Lothian is more logical that East Lothian. I shall deal with West Lothian.

The Labour leader has the opportunity to make history today: he can answer the West Lothian question. How could Scottish Members of Parliament in this House continue to legislate on matters in England, if English Members had no control over the same matters in Scotland? I hope that we will get an answer.

More insanely than that, those Scottish Members of Parliament voting on, say, health and education, and law and order, in England would not be able to vote on the same issues affecting their own constituents, because that would be the privilege of the Scottish Parliament.

Let me illustrate the point more clearly. The shadow Chancellor, who, alas, is not here this afternoon, would not be able to vote on health, education or other important matters relating to his constituents in Dunfermline, but he could get stuck into Dagenham or anywhere else in England, closing down grammar schools, abolishing GP fundholding practices and all the other regressive nonsenses that Labour supports. I do not understand how anyone can defend such unconstitutional nonsense.

Several hon. Members rose

The Prime Minister In a moment. I shall finish this passage, and then give way first to the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel). We have long known that those difficulties exist. The Labour leader himself has honestly admitted that "the anomaly is there" and said that the answer to the West Lothian question is - [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker Order. Mr. Campbell-Savours, I am sick and tired of hearing you shout out from a sedentary position - [Interruption.] Order. There was a great deal of pressure last Thursday on the Leader of the House to bring the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to the Dispatch Box today for this important debate. I want to hear the debate in silence. I call the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister Let me, Madam Speaker -

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) I want to ask the Prime Minister a question.

The Prime Minister I think that we have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman for the moment. Let me repeat what hon. Members may not have heard. The Labour leader has honestly admitted that "the anomaly is there", and said that the answer to the West Lothian question ‘is the answer we've always given".’ But what is that answer that he has "always given"? And where is it? It is as elusive as the Loch Ness monster. Has anyone seen it - or heard it? Will we hear what it is today?

Then, of course, there is the position of Scottish Members of Parliament who might be appointed as Ministers at Westminster. Will the leader of the Labour party confirm the statement of the shadow Foreign Secretary who, when responsible for health, said: ‘Once we have a Scottish Parliament handling health affairs, it is not possible for me to continue as Health Minister administering health in England"?’ The same principle would apply to education, the legal system, local government, home affairs and so on.

Since the 19th century, all devolution schemes have foundered on the question whether to withdraw voting rights from Westminster Members of Parliament representing nations with devolved Parliaments, or whether to reduce their number. The Liberal Democrats, to their credit, recognise that. They are already advocating a cut from 72 to 60 Scottish Members. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) does ‘not believe it will be possible to get a devolution Bill through Parliament without a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs to 57 or less.’ The Labour leader has said: ‘of course there are consequences in what we plan; we don't ignore them.’ So what are those consequences, and what does he plan?

At present, Scotland has more Members of Parliament than a strict justification on grounds of population would produce. The Labour Opposition wish to keep them in Parliament, because, without them, they would have a diminished chance of a UK majority. So, in their party interest, they are prepared to gerrymander the electoral system. The powerful office of Secretary of State for Scotland would also be abolished, lessening the voice of Scotland in the House and in Whitehall.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) I recognise that the Prime Minister believes strongly and genuinely that creating any devolved Parliament could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. I hope that he would respect the reverse view, which is that, without devolution, we risk the break-up of the United Kingdom. No anomaly that he has so far mentioned is as great as the present one, where 580 non-Scottish Members of Parliament determine purely Scottish legislation, such as the poll tax, which we had in Scotland before it was introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister The right hon. Gentleman referred to the poll tax and the grievance that it was introduced in Scotland first. The tartan tax is to be introduced in Scotland only.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) I wonder whether the Prime Minister had time to look at a survey published in The Scotsman on Monday, which showed that three quarters of Scots believe that the Tories are an English-based party with little relevance to Scotland. That included a third of Tory voters, although that was admittedly a small sample. After almost seven years of his prime ministership, why do so many Scots believe that he leads an anti-Scottish party? Might it be something to do with his implacable hostility to legitimate Scottish aspirations?

The Prime Minister I know that the hon. Gentleman would wish to peddle that line, but if he looked at what has happened to the quality of life in Scotland during the 18 years of Conservative Government, he would see the extent to which it has improved. If he looks at the growth of employment prospects, he will see the extent to which they have improved. If he sees the improvement in the education system or the health system, that has happened under Conservative Government during the past 18 years. If he were totally frank, he would acknowledge that that was the case.

I come to the point led into by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale - the infamous tartan tax. Why should people in Scotland pay income tax at a starting rate 15 per cent. higher than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South) Or lower.

The Prime Minister Or lower? The hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) clearly thinks that the extra public expenditure voted by the House to Scotland per head of population would continue, so that the Scottish Parliament could offer lower taxes to the people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He knows that that is unreal.

The Labour party has just put up posters giving a five-year pledge by the Labour leader not to put up income tax rates. However, Labour would put them up in Scotland, where it is pledged to establish a tartan income-tax-raising Parliament within a year, which would put up tax rates. That is a little insensitive of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield. The Islington elite clearly forgot about Scotland, and certainly forgot about the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), although I suppose that that is part of the Labour constitution. The hon. Gentleman should move to Islington.

Perhaps today the Labour leader will clarify the situation: income tax up in Scotland or not? If he has no plans to raise tax, why shackle his party to a policy that enables tax to be raised? What would the tartan tax do to jobs, investment and pensioners' savings in Scotland?

An increase of 3p in the basic rate of tax would leave someone on average earnings in Scotland £6 a week worse off. For a married couple who both worked, it could be double that. It would cost families £300 with one person in employment, and perhaps as much as £600 with two people working. Scottish pensioners who saved all their lives or contributed to pension plans would be worse off, just because they live in Scotland.

If that injustice goes ahead in Scotland, how would it work? How much would it cost? Would not the Inland Revenue have to set up a separate tax regime for Scotland? Does not a separate tax regime acknowledge the blatantly separatist implications of Labour's plans for a different tax system? Separate tax regimes define separate nations.

Several hon. Members rose -

The Prime Minister I am not the only one who thinks so. As another critic said: ‘The moment powers to raise taxation are offered and taken … the fracture of the United Kingdom will have begun.’ They are not my words - although I agree with them - but those of Mr. Neil Kinnock when he was a Member of Parliament. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Workington has shouted at me from a seated position often enough over the years, so he can stay seated today.

Would the tartan tax be levied according to where people live, where they work, or where their company is located? Could it become the tweed tax, spreading across the border? If someone from Islington was employed by a Scottish company, would he pay the tartan tax?

I shall give the right hon. Gentleman a practical example to chew on and respond to. Take the case of an important Scottish company, Kwik-Fit. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to listen, as he may wish to respond to this point. I am sure that the conversation of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) is diverting, but he can talk to her later. Kwik-Fit has 4,000 employees in England and 1,200 in Scotland, but all are paid from the payroll in Edinburgh. Would they all pay the tartan tax, or would Kwik-Fit be expected to apply different tax rates to different employees? [Interruption.]

When Labour Members do not like it because they do not have the answers, they try to drown it out. I repeat: would Kwik-Fit be expected to apply different tax rates to different employees? If not, employees in England would pay the tartan tax. If they did not, they would face a tax rise if they were transferred to their head office in Scotland. What would that do to the competitiveness of an extremely successful Scottish company? Opposition Members have not thought about any of that.

Mr. Campbell-Savours We have.

Mr. Major Good, then the Leader of the Opposition will give us the answers this afternoon.

Mr. Campbell-Savours Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Major No, we want the organ grinder, not the monkey.

What of Scottish Members of Parliament who advocate the tartan tax? Would they not be exempt from paying that tax? Within three months, the people of Scotland and the rest of Britain will have to vote on those crazy proposals. They have a right to answers, and, if those answers are not forthcoming today, they will be entitled to draw their own conclusions.

If anything could be as much of a mess as Labour's plans for Scotland, it must be its plans for Wales. Wales is to have an assembly instead of a parliament.

Mr. Home Robertson rose -

Mr. Major I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I am now talking about Wales. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] Perhaps I shall give way in a minute.

What is it about the people of Wales that means that Labour would not trust them with the powers that it is prepared to give to the people of Scotland? When the shadow Welsh Secretary, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), talks of a Welsh assembly not having tax-raising powers, he adds "initially". He says that Labour's plans for Wales are "clear and becoming clearer". What is becoming clearer -

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the Prime Minister to refuse to give way to a Scottish Member of Parliament who wishes to ask a question about Wales, when the Prime Minister is arguing about the United Kingdom?

Madam Speaker It is entirely up to the right hon. Gentleman to develop his speech in his own way. Perhaps the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) will be called to speak later in the debate.

The Prime Minister The hon. Member for East Lothian knows that I have given way often enough in my speech, and shall do so again.

The shadow Welsh Secretary talks about a Welsh Assembly not having tax-raising powers initially. However, it is becoming clearer to the people of Wales that, in due course, they too will have to pay higher taxes for the privilege of living in Wales. I shall tell hon. Members why, and I quote: ‘No level of Government has been denied some control of revenue raising … indeed, the lack of such a power and the conflict this could provoke is a more significant danger than having it".’ In essence, not having a tax-raising power is more dangerous than having a tax-raising power. That is not my view, but the view of the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). If the Labour leader does not repudiate that view, we know the fate for Wales - increased taxation.

Plans such as those mean that conflict between devolved Parliaments and the House would be inevitable. The outcome would be to damage the unity of the United Kingdom and lead to its fracture.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) Why does the Prime Minister persist in his nonsense of claiming that the choice before the people over Wales is for or against a devolved assembly? The choice is whether we have a vote or not. The Government are offering Wales no choice and no vote. That is what the people will decide in the general election. The Prime Minister is trying to stop Wales having a choice on devolution.

The Prime Minister Wales had a choice and expressed its view very clearly in the past.

Let me now move to what is proposed for England. A parliament for Scotland - [Interruption]. An assembly for Wales - [Interruption]. The more Opposition Members shout, the less they have the answers to the questions that I have put. There is a lot of sound and fury. We will see whether we get the answers. Then there are to be new assemblies for the regions of England.

Where is the appetite for a whole extra tier of government?

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) Ask the people.

The Prime Minister "Ask the people," says the hon. Gentleman. I bet that they would be very pleased with more bureaucrats, more politicians, more taxes.

Labour say that they will set up regional assemblies ‘if that is what local people want’ Presumably that means yet more referendums.

Mr. Tony Banks What is wrong with that?

The Prime Minister The Labour leader says that he is not in favour of referendums - that is one thing that is wrong with it. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman shares very few views with his leader, so it is unsurprising that he does not share that one.

If some regions choose to have an assembly, what will happen in those regions that do not? What would the assemblies do? The shadow Environment Secretary is very vague about that. He says that they will have "a say" over health. What that means, heaven alone knows. He is not certain, but just possibly he might want them to monitor water and electricity companies. He goes on to say that their demand for "more services" would be "unstoppable". What services? What nonsense! He has not the faintest idea what they are going to do.

The real reason for establishing regional assemblies across England has nothing whatever to do with good government in England; rather it has to do with giving the Labour party a spurious justification for keeping the present number of Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament in the House, even after establishing a parliament in Edinburgh and an assembly in Cardiff. That chaos - more government, more regulation - is the price that England would be asked to pay as the Labour party tries to appease separatism and tilt the electoral system in its favour.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) Has the Prime Minister not noticed that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee pointed out that the people of England have £17 billion of public expenditure per annum spent by his placemen and women through quangos, and the regions and the people living in the regions have no say in what the quangos are doing?

The Prime Minister If that is a new Liberal policy to abolish them all, I am very interested to hear it. No doubt they want to set up whole new elected tiers of bureaucracy. I note very carefully what the hon. Gentleman asks.

Let me turn to the point originally raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) about Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland remains one area where the Opposition parties have constantly supported Government efforts, and that has given the peace process added strength. I have publicly thanked them for that often enough, and I willingly do so again today. Unfortunately, some of them attempt to use the special circumstances of Northern Ireland to promote other views.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we can contemplate an assembly for Northern Ireland but not for Scotland and Wales. [Interruption.] It is a fair question, and if Opposition Members will listen, I will give them a detailed answer. The best answer is that given by the shadow Scottish Secretary, who said: ‘We would be unwise to draw a parallel between Scotland's … desire to have a parliament and anything going on in Northern Ireland.’ I shall elaborate the point. He is right, because the circumstances are not comparable. That is only the background to why the hon. Gentleman made that statement.

What we have suggested for Northern Ireland is radically different from the plan that the Labour party has for Scotland and Wales. There is no suggestion of an assembly with tax-raising powers. There are no pluralist politics in Northern Ireland, as there are in Scotland and Wales. There is no representation by parties likely to form a United Kingdom Government. What we are seeking in Northern Ireland is a widely accepted accommodation based on consent. That would provide the surest possible foundation for maintaining Northern Ireland's place firmly within the United Kingdom. That is our wish. Labour's flawed proposals for Scotland and Wales would ultimately drive them out of the United Kingdom, and we oppose that.

Labour also proposes to fiddle with the House of Lords, despite the fact -

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose -

Mr. Donohoe rose -

The Prime Minister I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) until he has learnt better manners. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe).

Mr. Donohoe Will the Prime Minister's proposals for Northern Ireland lead to a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in the House?

The Prime Minister When Northern Ireland had an assembly in the past, it had 12 Members of Parliament and constituency sizes were about 50 per cent. larger than constituency sizes across the rest of the United Kingdom. There is already over-representation in Scotland: there are 72 Scottish Members, as against 17 for Northern Ireland. Its powers were not comparable with the powers that would go to a Scottish Parliament.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, if Northern Ireland had proper representation in the House, comparable to that for Scotland, we would have 23 Members of Parliament? Does he further accept that the plan is to return devolved local administration with powers to Northern Ireland? Does he also accept that the signing over of certain consultative positions to the Dublin Government is an anomaly in a kingdom that expects to rule itself?

As a graduate of Trinity college, I would have understood if the Government were guiding the appointment of a person to the senate of Trinity, but why, in the name of all that is wonderful, do we have to consult in quangoland on appointments to the senate of Queen's university, the numbers of which must be sent to Dublin?

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman is entirely right about the comparable number of Members of Parliament. Indeed, there would be rather more English Members of Parliament on a comparable basis were we to have the same population representation as Scotland. As I said a few moments ago, we are seeking to provide the surest foundation for maintaining Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. That will remain our constant policy.

The Labour party also proposes to fiddle with the House of Lords, despite the fact that it works well as a revising chamber and as a forum for debate. There are times when we hear a little less from Labour Members about the House of Lords, such as last week, when they used it to undermine our plans to get tough on drug dealers, violent criminals and burglars. The House of Lords is all right then. What the shadow Home Secretary will not do in this House, he has his colleagues do in the other House if he possibly can. When the House of Lords so misbehaves itself that it agrees with the Government, Labour says that it is a bastion of unacceptable privilege.

Labour proposes to change the House of Lords in a two-stage reform. First, it would remove the right of hereditary peers to sit. For stage two, with characteristic firmness of purpose, it undertakes to work it all out later. Labour risks creating the largest and most powerful quango in history, to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). It would be a House filled with hand-picked appointments, which would give a whole new meaning to the term "trade union barons": an Islington focus group writ large. If those people are not to be appointed, will they be elected? If so, would the Upper House set itself up in opposition to this House? Who would arbitrate between them? Indeed: ‘The prospect of a second Chamber challenging or replicating the power of the first would produce instability and inefficiency, and is to be avoided.’ That is my view, but that is also how the Labour party put it in its document. So it admits the dangers, but it still proposes the change.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) The Prime Minister has already referred to a revising Chamber two or three times, saying, for instance, that one would not be available in Scotland under Labour's plans. Is he happy with the fact that, on Tuesday, this House reversed the decisions of the House of Lords on every amendment?

The Prime Minister This House is sovereign. It is because the hon. Gentleman does not believe that that he follows the politics he does, but I do believe that this House is sovereign.

The final lunacy in Labour's plans is, of course, reform of the voting system. The Liberal Democrats have long favoured that, for reasons that I well understand. It is true that the "first past the post" system does them no favours, but I think that it is right for the country. Proportional representation would deliver permanent coalitions, for ever depending on back-room deals with minority parties that would withdraw support whenever it suited them. [Laughter.] It is interesting to see that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) knows that that is true.

Labour's view, however, is very murky. We are told that Labour flirts with the idea of a referendum on proportional representation - one of the dozen or so referendums that it now plans in order to keep the Liberal Democrats happy. But, at the same time, the Labour leader uses his familiar tactic of sending people out into the Lobbies to whisper that he personally is opposed to PR. We know that he says one thing in public and another in private; now we see that he says different things in private whenever it suits him. Today, he can tell us his position in public.

We are told that constitutional reform would be a priority for a Labour Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that Labour Members confirm that. Constitutional reform would be a priority - not jobs, not taxes, not health, not law and order, but gerrymandering the constitution with these barmy propositions.

Our constitution is the foundation of our democracy. It is the base on which our freedoms appear, and our economic prosperity. That is why I defend it. I would change it only cautiously, and after careful examination. If the case were to be made, I would support it, but no case has yet remotely been made for the changes proposed by the Opposition.

The constitution should not be a political plaything for party gain. Ours is a united kingdom, a proud nation state, part of a Europe that is and should remain a partnership of nations and not a federal state. Labour's constitutional proposals would affect not just Scotland and Wales, but the whole United Kingdom. They would affect this Parliament. They would affect the way in which this nation is governed. The damage they would do is massive, and the benefits they would bring are dubious. They are rightly an election issue, and we shall make them so.