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Forth: the most botched and shambolic reshuffle in living memory

Opening speech in the House of Commons Opposition Day debate on the constitutional implications of the Government reshuffle

"Can I welcome the Rt Hon Gentleman to his new position as part time Leader of the House.

I congratulate him on his marriage on Saturday - I wish him many years of happiness…

…and at least a few weeks as Leader of the House.

Mr. Speaker, last Thursday the Prime Minister's Press Office announced sweeping change to our Constitution and our system of justice, as a half-baked afterthought to the most botched and shambolic reshuffle in living memory.

But since then the Prime Minister hasn't deigned to come to the House to explain what it all means.

He can't explain because he doesn't know what it all means.

He won't explain because he doesn't care what it all means.

And now he has left it to the part time Leader of the House to pick up the pieces.

As a result of what the Prime Minister cobbled together between trips abroad --

the separate and distinct voices of Scotland and Wales in the Cabinet have been utterly confused and downgraded;

a Scottish Member of Parliament is in charge of health in England, imposing on England a foundation hospital system rejected in Scotland, but no English Member is allowed a say on health policy in Scotland;

another Scottish Member is responsible for transport in England while defending the interests of Scotland, yet reporting to a unelected English Minister in another Place.

Last Thursday, the West Lothian question became a Westminster question.

A question over the competence of the Prime Minister, over his openness and honesty with his Cabinet colleagues and over the accountability of Ministers to Parliament.

Chaos, confusion and conflicts of interests run rife everywhere.

Downing Street's first task was to explain whether or not the Lord Chancellor still existed, and if not, who or what would perform the vacant roles.

The timetable of this sorry saga went something like this…

On Thursday the Government announced that a Department for Constitutional Affairs would replace the Lord Chancellor's Department. Lord Irvine, the Prime Minister's former boss, who objected to the changes, was sacked, and Lord Falconer, his former flat mate, was appointed to a new role: Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs.

Not, I note, Lord Chancellor, because, as part of the changes, the post of Lord Chancellor would be abolished and his responsibilities as head of the English judiciary, Cabinet minister and Speaker of the Lords would be reallocated.

According to the Downing Street website on Thursday: 'the [Prime Minister's Official Spokesman] said that in the transition period Lord Falconer would not fulfill either the judicial function of Lord Chancellor or the role of speaker'.

But on Friday, Lord Falconer had to be dragged to the Woolsack to assume his place on the Woolsack as speaker of the House of Lords, and was forced to admit that he was after all the Lord Chancellor.

Then on Saturday, Lord Falconer said: 'I will continue to be the Lord Chancellor and exercise his powers until such time as statutory arrangements can be made to replace it, and that was always made clear. As long as the House of Lords wish the Lord Chancellor to sit on the Woolsack I will continue to do that' (Daily Telegraph, 16 June 2003).

Then there was the need to explain the plans for a Supreme Court, and the Government's commitment to consult widely on their proposals.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister announced the creation of a Supreme Court to replace the Law Lords.

The role of the Lord Chancellor as head of the English judiciary would be reallocated.

A Judicial Appointments Commission, an independent body to select new judges, would take over responsibility from the Lord Chancellor.

But can the part time Leader of the House confirm that it may be another six weeks after the announcement of the creation of these new bodies before consultation papers on this are even published?

Because that's what the timetable published by Downing Street last Thursday said.

On Friday, the Hon and Learned member for Medway told the Today programme:

'If you are going to change 1,500 years of constitutional history, you do it carefully, you have a consultation, a white Paper and experts, and then finally you bring it before Parliament, because Parliament decides the way we are governed, not the Prime Minister on the back of an envelope in Downing Street. What we have here is a botch, which looks as though it has been put together in panic. It totally lacks coherence and clarity."

On Sunday, Speaking on Breakfast with Frost on Sunday 15 June, Lord Falconer said that 'as far as the Supreme Court is concerned the effect of the announcement on Thursday is that we would have a Supreme Court but the detail of that has to be worked out after proper consultation.'

And meanwhile, the Government's claim that the proposed Judicial Appointments Commission would make judicial appointments impartial was queried by Lord Donaldson, former Master of the Rolls: 'You can have an Appointments Commission which is independent of the executive, but nevertheless is tailor-made to produce an entirely different kind of judge who perhaps would be more acceptable to the Home Secretary'.

Might this have been what the Rt Hon Gentleman, the part time Leader of the House, meant when he said in Tribune in 1984:

"The next Labour Government should appoint only judges who have clear socialist or libertarian leanings."

The story of the fast diminishing representation of the people of Scotland and Wales bears some retelling.

On Thursday, the Downing Street press briefing read:

"New arrangements will also be put in place for the conduct of Scottish and Welsh business."

"The Scotland and Wales Offices will henceforth be located within the new Department for Constitutional Affairs, together with the Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales."

On Friday, the Downing Street press briefing described the Rt Hon member for Edinburgh Central as "Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for Scotland" and the Rt Hon member for Neath as "Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal and Secretary of State for Wales".

The briefing went on to say that, "The [Prime Minister's Official Spokesman] said he couldn't give a precise breakdown of Alastair Darling's schedule and it would be wrong to do so but … one of the reasons Alastair Darling was made Secretary of State for Scotland was that he was Scottish."

"Asked if he was saying that Alastair Darling, Peter Hain and Helen Liddell didn't have enough to do the PMOS said that what he was saying was that was in respect of Wales and Scotland, given the progress of time in relation to devolution was that these were no longer full-time jobs so they were being combined with other roles."

"Asked who the civil servants in the Scottish and Welsh offices would answer to, the PMOS said that they would come under a single Permanent Secretary Sir Hadyn Phillips but would work to their respective secretaries of state. Asked if the Permanent Secretary would be answerable to Lord Falconer the PMOS said he would."

After all that, I think all of us will agree with the conclusions of Friday's Downing Street Press Briefing…

"…the PMOS said that…some things had been a little hazy."

But not apparently to the part time Leader of the House, who told BBC Radio Wales on Friday, "The Wales Office is not being abolished, I stay as Secretary of State for Wales."

He did, however, have a few harsh words for the Prime Minister and his team:

"I readily admit that in the comings and goings yesterday this whole issue could have been communicated far more effectively from Downing Street."

On Saturday, Lord Falconer said, "Of course I am not their boss … There is still a Scottish Office, the officials work in my department, but politically those offices are led by Peter and Alistair, there is still a very strong voice in the Cabinet for Scotland and Wales".

And as the Hon Lady the member of Stirling, now parliamentary undersecretary in the Department of Constitution Affairs, said: "I am working for Alistair Darling as a junior minister in the Scotland Office which is part of the constitutional affairs department … A great deal of the day to day activity will be done by me anyway, Alistair and I have discussed that".

Today, the sad tale can be summed up in one line.

As the Scotland Office website now reads:

"This site is currently under redevelopment"

But Mr Speaker, today's debate is about more than constitutional confusion.

It is about the loss of representation for the people of Wales and Scotland.

It is about the loss of democratic accountability for the acts of this Government.

Exactly what are the roles of the Scottish Secretary, the Welsh Secretary and the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs?

Does a Scottish Member with a concern go to the Rt. Hon. Member for Edinburgh Central or to the Lord Chancellor?

What happens if the Rt. Hon. Member disagrees with the Lord Chancellor?

What happens if the Rt. Hon. Member gives a civil servant a differing instruction from the Lord Chancellor?

Is the Scotland Office part of the Department of Constitutional Affairs as we were told on Thursday?

Or is there still a Scotland Office as the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs told us on Sunday?

If the Rt Hon Member for Darlington felt obliged to resign from the job of one Secretary of State - how can others be reasonably expected to do two jobs?

The government has totally lost the plot on constitutional change.

It began last week with a flat "No" to a referendum on the new European Constitution.

It started this week with a pledge of referendums on regional assemblies.

We began last week with them running away from a referendum on the destruction of the pound.

We ended the week with them promising emergency legislation in another place allowing referendums on fluoride in water.

The final question this House must consider Mr Speaker is that of the Rt Hon Member for Hamilton North and Bellshill and the West Lothian Question.

The absurdity of his appointment is that we now have an MP representing a Scottish constituency, telling us how to run the NHS in England when he has no say over health policy in Scotland because the issue is devolved.

Our Father of the House said of his appointment: 'It is an extraordinary piece of casting to put a Scot in charge of the English health service. Dr Reid has no say whatsoever in health matters pertaining to those who sent him to the Commons.'

The Hon gentleman, the Member for Thurrock, said: 'I am not happy that the health ministry, which is almost totally an English ministry, is headed up by a member of parliament representing a Scottish constituency.'

The Secretary of State for Health will have the task of pushing through the foundation hospitals bill in England, even though it has been rejected by the Labour run Scottish assembly.

Has he forgotten what the Rt Hon Member for Livingstone, Shadow Health Secretary and a Scottish MP just before the 1992 Election, once said? 'Once we have a Scottish Parliament handling health affairs in Scotland, it is not possible for me to continue as Minister of Health, administering health, in England'.

Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister has been guilty of breathless arrogance and supreme incompetence.

At a time when our public services are in crisis and in dire need of real and radical reform…

At a time when one in four children are leaving our primary schools unable to read, write and count properly…

At a time when 30,000 children go on to leave secondary school without a single GCSE…

At a time when there are still a million people on hospital waiting lists…

At a time when 300,000 people are forced every year to pay for their own hospital treatment…

At a time when our pensions are in crisis, with personal pensions halved since 1997…

At a time when our roads are more congested than ever before, when the British people spend longer commuting to work than any people in Europe, and when one in five trains is late…

At a time when gun crime is spiraling out of control…

What does the Prime Minister come up with?

The Prime Minister decided that what the country needed was a shambolic reshuffle that nobody has been consulted on and that nobody understands.

So he announces his plans and then he asks us to agree with them.

But does he want us to agree with the version his spokesmen briefed out on Thursday night, the amended version they briefed on Friday morning or the revised plans they came up with over the weekend?

No wonder no-one trusts the Prime Minister's priorities any more.

No wonder no-one trusts anything the Prime Minister says anymore, when so much of what he says is corrected or contradicted just 24 hours later.

And no wonder no-one trusts the Prime Minister's ability to deliver anymore.

Have the key decision already been taken on…

the role of the Lord Chancellor?

a Supreme Court?

a Judicial Appointments Commission?

…Or is genuine consultation and debate to take place?

Does anyone understand the roles and responsibilities of…

the Department of Constitutional Affairs

The Scottish Office

The Welsh Office

…And what about their ministers and officials?

Who, for example, is the Minister for Constitutional Affairs in the Commons?

Mr Speaker, "The lesson of previous Parliamentary change is that it has to be carried out with care and sensitivity."

Not my words, but the words of the now Prime Minister in 1996.

How can we have confidence in a Prime Minister who has forgotten any lessons he claimed to have learned and who now tries to impose this shambles on our Parliament and our country?

We need consultation, debate, thought and care over such delicate matters.

As we are showing today - if the Government won't do it, we will."

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