Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have chosen to take part in this debate and to noble Lords across all parties who are taking an interest in what future path the United Kingdom takes in the event of a no vote in the Scottish referendum. It would be a dereliction of duty for me not to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who chairs with me an all-party group on UK reform and further decentralisation. When the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I both served in the Scottish Parliament, we would occasionally spar against each other across the Floor of the Chamber, but on this issue we purr with agreement on the need for a lively debate on what shape the United Kingdom takes in future.
This debate is taking place on an important day in Scottish political history. It is uncommon that political parties from very different backgrounds and philosophies and with competing interests come together on a shared platform. This afternoon, Willie Rennie MSP, Johann Lamont MSP and Ruth Davidson MSP have led their respective parties to a common statement committing them all to delivering powers to strengthen the way the Scottish Parliament operates and to allow the people appropriately to hold MSPs to account for the decisions that they make. Such a commitment is highly significant and guarantees the strengthening of the Scottish Parliament should Scots vote no.
Exactly a decade ago, in June 2004, I published a pamphlet outlining a new model for financing the Scottish Parliament within the UK. In the introduction of a paper on fiscal federalism which I wrote while serving as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee I said that “the concept of fiscal federalism is well suited to a modern, sophisticated and pluralist society like Scotland. It will provide the necessary underpinning to support the move towards an increasingly federal system of governance in the United Kingdom”. A decade on, I continue to hold that view. It is worth noting for noble Lords’ interest that when I published that paper my party was serving in government in Scotland and the SNP had the previous year suffered a major reverse in the Scottish Parliament elections. It was most assuredly not a proposal designed to respond to the calls for independence by a strong SNP.
I have never believed that the question of the powers of the Scottish Parliament is one of tactics or about responding to nationalist arguments. Rather, I have always believed that the question of powers is one of ensuring the right balance of accountability and responsibilities within our union. With the right balance, we ensure that the appropriate sphere of government is best motivated to deliver good and efficient services and is appropriately held to account for the decisions it makes. Without the appropriate balance, it is easy for decisions to be avoided and an accountability gap to be created. I saw this start to develop while I was an MSP, and I see it today. I deliberately cite spheres of government; no longer should we in the United Kingdom be talking about levels of government. Many citizens across our union live with two Parliaments, or a Parliament and an Assembly, and two Governments. It is therefore the sphere of those government relations, and the relationship between them, not the hierarchical level, which is the most appropriate area to define.
The Scottish parties of the current coalition government partners have published proposals that match closely those I put forward in 2004. Coming from different perspectives, they have reached the same conclusions to address this growing imbalance. The post-referendum debate, however, is one that does not affect solely Scotland. For England, Wales and Northern Ireland the existential questioning of the union by many Scots requires us to consider the wider union, and the governance of England, too. This debate is best shaped if we set the terms for what the extent of devolution is, or what I have called the natural destination of devolution. This is the permanent balance of power and responsibility between the nations, beyond which the union does not function.
My party for many years has argued a federalist case, and others are coming to the same conclusions about the need to reach a clear understanding on what this destination of devolution is. The issue for post-referendum Britain, therefore, is how we bring coherence to this in order that the union is not merely a more asymmetrical entity than it is at the moment, without a clear defining of place for the Westminster and Whitehall institutions and the relationship between the nations and within England.
First, there can most definitely be a union that has varying powers in the nations. After all, they entered into the union for different reasons and under differing circumstances, so their continuing presence in it need not be identical. Secondly, the governance of Scotland on domestic—or, as some call them, home rule—affairs, need not be identical to the governance of equivalent areas within England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Indeed, in many respects, there can be a healthy difference in the way in which policy is approached. It is unhealthy if there is difference of accountability and balance of finance.
It is therefore the issue of the coherence of what holds the entity of the union together that is important. For me, it is the rational and well considered decentralisation of power from Westminster and Whitehall, the extent that we reach the right balance of accountability and that it is robust enough to be permanent and stable.
The UK should become a more federal-type kingdom after the referendum, even if it prefers not to describe itself as such. While it will not be a purely federal country— perhaps it will never be, as I have outlined in relation to the way in which the union was formed—it will increasingly have characteristics of how federal countries operate. For example, the permanence of the Scottish Parliament should be enshrined in the constitutional architecture of the whole union. The Scottish Parliament should not be a devolved Parliament of this Parliament, it should be a permanent body in its own right, able to be abolished only should it so desire, or have its powers altered only if it approves. The Scottish Government, elected from its Parliament’s Members, should not have their financial relationship with the Treasury set unilaterally by the Treasury. The relationship between the UK Treasury and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will look much more like that of a federal finance ministry rather than a centralised UK Treasury that can unilaterally alter the state of funding policy across all four nations.
While Scotland is further down a path of reform than Wales—and Northern Ireland, which has its own considerations——the question of the governance of England must continue. There is the need therefore to establish a framework of principles under which UK-wide bodies operate, under which UK Ministers carry out their UK-wide functions, as opposed to their English functions, and under which the institutional arrangements between the Governments of the nations, often called the concordats, are framed. Such a framework of principles would apply also to the many bodies and agencies that currently have a UK-wide remit and touch on areas that are the competence of the nations but which are answerable only to this Parliament.
What does this mean for the users of these services, our former constituents in many respects? Sometimes we think that our esoteric arguments about constitutional theory will be grabbing their attention every single day. I think they would see a greater level of transparency and hold the relevant politicians to account. A Scottish Parliament with spending powers and no taxation powers is a rather artificially benign political institution. Power resides with the people, not the institutions, and we must make it straightforward for them to exercise such power.
Therefore the question today is what path the UK Government and this Parliament take after 18 September and what position the new Administration from 2015 takes, whatever party or parties form it. The Secretary of State for Scotland, my right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael, has announced that he will convene a conference on the new Scotland within 30 days of the referendum in the event of a no vote. This represents an opportunity for the parties who have published their proposals and for those such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Devo Plus group, the IPPR and others who have published their proposals to come together in good time before the UK general election.
On a wider aspect relating to the whole of the union, some have spoken, including my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart about the way the Scottish Constitutional Convention brought political parties and civic Scotland together in the 1980s and 1990s. This is a model worthy of consideration for the whole of the kingdom. There is merit in this. I believe, however, that given where we are today, 15 years on from the establishment of the Parliaments and Assemblies in our nations, we need a mechanism that can allow for open but focused discussion on how Westminster and Whitehall reforms take place.
I therefore propose to the Minister for his consideration the convening of a conference on the new union. Such a conference on the new union should be convened after the UK general election in 2015. It should last no longer than six months, and its objective should be to discuss and agree the principles upon which the UK and its institutions would be reformed in a coherent way for the positive distribution of power, a process already taking place within Scotland.
In conclusion, I leave the Minister with just these thoughts. It should have as its remit the endorsement of the reforms to the Scottish Parliament, that will be being legislated for, and to the National Assembly for Wales. It should also deliver agreement on how the financial relationship between the nations and the UK Government is made more transparent with the protections afforded the nations. The conference on the new union should also agree the parameters of reform to this Parliament’s procedures for the legislation that covers England. It should also put in place the necessary measures to enshrine permanently the existence of our national Parliament and the Assemblies of the nations.
Our union is a remarkable one, but it is being tested. The test is major. There will be a considerable number of people voting in fewer than 100 days to leave this union. I hope they will be in the minority in Scotland. If they are, we must respond. The response must be in a considered, sincere and careful way, but that does not mean it should not be radical. The opportunity for further decentralisation and modernisation of the UK presents itself most clearly. We should see the opportunity presented to us, and we should take it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, first, on tabling the QSD on this subject and, secondly, even more impressively, on getting a debate quite so quickly on it. He must have the kind of influence on the usual channels that I can only dream of. He has also established a sort of, albeit temporary, unique Lib-Lab coalition on this debate, which I must say I am encouraged by.
I refer back to Margo MacDonald’s memorial service. I was struck by the message that Jim Sillars brought to us from Margo MacDonald on her deathbed, which was the hope that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, we should all work together for the good of Scotland. Maybe it is my wishful thinking, but I thought when he uttered that, he was looking particularly at Alex Salmond. I assume that he was talking to both sides on behalf of Margo. As Margo said—and I think I can say this as one of the no campaigners—I hope that when we win, as I think we will on 18 September, when 19 September comes there will be no recrimination whatever, no score-settling and no tone of triumphalism, but a tone of inclusivity, ensuring that not only is Scotland fit for purpose but the whole United Kingdom becomes increasingly fit for purpose.
We have had the devolution process. I was party to that as chair of the Labour campaign for a Scottish Assembly and then for a Scottish Parliament. I must say that I get upset when the SNP says that it was the instigator, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said. We did it because we believed in it, and it was a Labour Government who produced the Scottish Parliament. But unfortunately, of necessity, the devolution process has been piecemeal. We have gone our own way in Scotland, Wales has not gone quite so far and in a different way, while Northern Ireland has its own set-up. London has not just one centre of government but two, on the riverside—the Mayor of London and the GLA. This piecemeal devolution has left us with what Tam Dalyell called the West Lothian question but what I would rather call the English anomaly—the English democratic deficit. If I was still living in England, that is what I would be annoyed about. I am surprised that the English are so reasonable and sensible about it, apart from towards Italy because of recent events. The wrong way to deal with the English dimension is what the Tory side of this Government are suggesting—I do not know about the Minister at the Dispatch Box—which is that Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should not vote on what supposedly can be defined as England-only measures in the House of Commons. This needs to be done in a more fundamental, sensible, coherent and cogent way than that, which is why the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and I have set up an all-party group to look at further decentralisation and devolution and to consider ways in which England can be excluded. My own thought is that we should have an English Parliament and the devolution of administration to the regions or city regions within England, but that is not for me to decide. What we need to do is provide a framework so that we can all look at it and all decide.
Incidentally, a similar proposal is coming for another source of concern, which we will discuss next Thursday. It relates to the urgent need for a review of the constitution of this House, the second Chamber of Parliament. It should be looked at by a constitutional commission. I think that the outcome of the all-party group will be to suggest a constitutional commission, just as the working group of the Labour Party has suggested in relation to reform of the Upper House. If the second Chamber could be representative of the nations of the United Kingdom and the regions of England, it would fulfil a very useful purpose. Perhaps I may also echo what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said about the cynicism of the nationalists in saying that they cannot trust the unionist party leaders to come up with an alternative. That is cynicism of the worst order, which is so typical of the nationalists. If we had a constitutional commission, in order to reassure people who might think that we are kicking the issue into the long grass, it should have a clearly defined timetable to enable legislation to be introduced in the next Parliament. If there was a timetable of two years, the commission could certainly do that.
The idea that has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is one way of doing this. I like the concept of a conference of the new union and I like the way that he suggested that the Government should do that. However, I say to my noble friend Lord Kennedy that I am campaigning to make sure that this commitment is set out in the Labour Party manifesto so that we can be really sure that what we expect to be the next Government of the United Kingdom will carry it through at the earliest opportunity. I know that my noble friend Lady Adams and other noble friends will join me in that campaign.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on securing this debate. I seem to have spent my whole political life talking about devolution. In fact, those of us who are young enough to remember will know that in every Scottish political programme of the 1970s, 10 minutes would be set aside for someone to ask, “And what about devolution?”. We spent the next 10 years, into the late 1980s, with the word “devolution”, until eventually we set up the Scottish Constitutional Convention, when we brought civic Scotland, political Scotland, religious Scotland and trade unionists together round a table to see what shape we thought this should take. Would this be the answer to nationalism? Could we bring Scotland together without going down the road of separation? That process also took 10 years. This is a long process; it is not something that can be done in a knee-jerk reaction. By taking each issue piecemeal, we have ended up in the situation that we are now in.
When Donald Dewar said, at the start of the Scottish Parliament, that devolution was not an event but a process, the nationalists took that to mean that the process should lead to separation. I do not think that was ever the intention in Donald Dewar’s head. I think that he was looking for continuous devolution—that power going down should continue to go down. What has been missed in all this is local government. In fact, the Scottish Parliament did not devolve more power to local government; it sucked up power from local government. We wondered then why people were not engaging. People will engage only at local level. The biggest issue is not the starting point; it might be for teenagers when they are thinking about nuclear weapons or identity cards but, once they get into their twenties and the price of bread and of houses means something, they want to be involved at local level. We have not looked closely enough at what is happening in that regard.
When we had the Scottish Parliament after 20 years of discussion, we might have thought that we would have a huge turnout at elections. In fact, that was not the case. I think that at the last Scottish Parliament elections less than 50% of the electors voted. So we now have a nationalist Government who were elected by about one-quarter of Scotland’s electors. That cannot be good for democracy. If devolution is about anything, it should be about securing democracy and engaging as many people as we can in the process from the lowest base.
Alex Salmond continually asks us what more powers the Scottish Parliament will have if there is a no vote. That reminds me of when I used to take my children to the fairground when they were small and they wanted to pull out a duck from a fairground stall—and it said above the stall that everybody would win a prize. I do not think that Alex Salmond is looking at all for an answer to the yes/no question; he wants to know what the next prize in the list will be. He is now looking for independence with the union jack or independence without it. You cannot have your cake and eat it.
If the union is to be sustained, the West Lothian question has to be answered. The West Lothian question has always been a matter for the people of England. That became totally confused. The people of England have to decide what shape their democracy takes. We cannot impose that on them from above; they have to decide whether they want an English Parliament, whether they want their home affairs to be discussed in the national Parliament or whether they want an English Parliament with regions within that Parliament. They should not just be told constantly that Scotland is getting more powers, Northern Ireland is getting more powers and Wales is getting more powers. Where do the people of England end up in all this? Like my noble friend Lord Foulkes, I think that if I was a resident of England I would be very annoyed at all of that. I would feel completely excluded and as if I did not matter. I would wonder why England, as the biggest part of the union, did not matter, and why what I wanted did not matter.
We wonder why people are not engaging. I, too, think that we need a constitutional convention for the whole UK to look at democracy in the context of both Houses in this Parliament. Should we have a bicameral system or a single Chamber with an Executive? Should we have devolved assemblies within national Parliaments? Where does local government come into all this? This is a long process, but what we have to do in that process is reach out to everyone, not just to people in certain parts of the UK.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Adams, whose views I broadly agree with. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed for initiating this debate. I believe it is very timely to do so.
Today, in its first leader, the Financial Times speaks of the possibility of a federal Britain being the best solution for the future of our constitution. I rather agree. It is well argued. However, we cannot arrive at that position as a result of a snap decision taken by one political party. As the noble Baroness, Lady Adams, said, it is clear that this needs to be deliberative. It needs to involve more than single political parties or single Governments, even if they happen to be coalition Governments. We are looking for a consensus about how best Britain should be governed.
Having served in the Convention on the Future of Europe for nearly two years, I can report that that system brought about broad consensus. There were some exceptions, but there was broad consensus and the result, despite the referenda in France and the Netherlands, was that most of the recommendations were incorporated in the Lisbon treaty and have, to my mind, been broadly accepted by the member countries. That does not mean that we have reached the end of the debate about the future of Europe. We have to go ahead with that.
What we are faced with at this time as a result of the referendum in Scotland is the possibility of the break-up of Britain. It seems to be me that that would be a catastrophe for the whole country and for Europe. That view is taken by many people in other countries. The Scots may be surprised that this issue has been noticed. The Foreign Secretary of Sweden, President Obama and, most recently, the Pope have indicated that the break-up of countries is highly undesirable. I hope those utterances by objective people who stand back will be recognised and noticed in Scotland.
I take the view that we need to improve our constitutional set-up so that the public can feel not disaffected by politics but involved to the extent that they can be effective. That requires greater decentralisation of government and attention to local government, which has not been given in Scotland. In fact, it has been reversed to some extent.
When we consider the future constitution of this country, we should be thinking about the equitable treatment of all parts of the country and considering how the English—85% of the population of Great Britain—should be favoured and how they should be enabled to reach decisions that are satisfactory to them. There is a fairly general sense of distrust of politicians across the United Kingdom at this time, so how we go about this should not be decided by a political party, and certainly not on the eve of a general election. The possibility of announcing before a referendum that a convention will be established would be highly desirable because it would give the Scots, particularly those who are undecided, some confidence that there will be a national debate about how best to govern a country that has been together for over 300 years. The Scottish convention did offer many good examples of the involvement of the public. As the noble Baroness said, it involved religious and civic groups, trade unions and the CBI. They all could take part.
The report of the Conservative commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, seems to tend in that direction. He has spoken about localities being represented in such a convention. I have talked to him subsequently and he said that evidence should be provided by all kinds of interest groups. That is what I would hope would happen. The leaders of the three political parties that are representative of the United Kingdom at this time do not have a common view about how devolution should be managed. They should get together and announce that such a convention will be set up. It will not come to its conclusions before the general election, but it will be a matter of priority to be decided by the people of this country.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on securing this debate. I am sure he already knows this, but I would point out to him that he comes from a very long line of politicians who have been strongly in favour of devolution but have not been able to deliver it. In fact, the Library note makes the point clearly on a number of occasions that almost all Governments have been in favour of decentralising Britain and devolving power, but that nearly all of them have run into difficulties in doing that. I must confess to my share in that because, back in 1980, when Bryan Gould, the MP for Dagenham at the time, was the shadow Minister for planning and I was a shadow Minister, we tried to work out what a regional structure for the UK would look like. It is actually very difficult to do, particularly when you have local councils worrying about losing their powers in a regional structure. They promptly start to reject what they previously said they were in favour of.
I have always been struck by the fact that in 1707, what became the United Kingdom after the joining up of Scotland made us Great Britain was actually a federal structure even before federalism was recognised. Why was that? It was because Scotland had its own legal system, and England and Scotland had separate arrangements for the church, which was a very important part of the constitutional structure at the time. In a way we partly invented federalism but did not quite know what to do thereafter.
Perhaps the most important point that I want to make today is that while I am a bit hesitant, I am broadly in favour of a constitutional commission, but the great difficulty with it is that it is an incredibly complex area that will take a long time to do. I would quite like to find a way of addressing the issue in more discrete parts.
I will give an example of what I mean. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I have often discussed this, and he made the point well that the English are a bit odd because they do not know quite what they want. Part of the problem, of course, is that a lot of English people think of themselves as British and not as English, whereas most Scottish people think of themselves as Scottish and British. The English are, in a way, a bit more ambivalent about it, although the rise of Englishness has certainly happened fairly dramatically in recent years. I do not regard myself as English and never have done so; I am a typical mixture of all parts of these islands, and that is one of its strengths.
However, it is not just the size of England in relation to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that is the problem; it is also the problem within England. If you take the area bounded by Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford and Southampton, you are talking about more than 22 million people. That is more than one-third of the population of the whole United Kingdom and approaching half that of England. Many years ago, Bryan Gould and I were looking at regional structures, and he said, “Supposing we take out London and just have the rest of the south-east”—the “mint with the hole” approach. That of course made no sense. However, if you tried to divide up the vast region of the south-east into regions, you would struggle again to make sense of it. That problem puts some of the other problems about regions into perspective, such as the problem of whether Manchester or Liverpool should be the capital of a north-west region, without provoking a revised version of the War of the Roses. So we struggled with that. However, the south-east is the problem.
One great advantage of the debates in Scotland that led to devolution, which I strongly supported and has worked well, was that it was much more focused. You could focus on what could be done within Scotland to get that structure working. Another good thing that has come out of that—and this is an underlying fact that we should never forget—was that you need to be very clear about the powers that are devolved. Then you have a situation whereby everything that is not devolved is with the central authority. That is a very important principle because it means that you can build up to devolution without having a big argument about whether defence or foreign policy is under the control of a particular area. I use the extreme example.
I have always been in favour of devolution. I do not like the centralisation of the UK. I recall, as most of us will, that the great driving house of the industrial revolution, which emerged as both parts of the union got very much richer after 1707, was in part due to the fact that the great cities themselves were an economic driving force. Scottish nationalists would do well to remember that. Birmingham is one of the classic examples. It would be nice if we could get back to something like that, whereby the regions, and the towns and cities in the regions, became the driving force.
I am in favour of a constitutional commission and we have to be very focused on it. Time is not on our side. If you start that process and it goes on for years on end, you will end up in many years to come with the same structure that we have now.
My Lords, we should all be grateful to my noble friend Lord Purvis for initiating this debate, and to him and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for the work they are doing with the all-party group, which is very timely. I notice that all noble Lords speaking today either have strong connections with devolved areas of the country or cannot really speak for England—and, indeed, Cornwall—beyond London, expect of course the Minister himself.
I should put on the record that, as long ago as 1968, I was the co-author of a booklet entitled Power to the Provinces, in which we argued the case for subsidiarity before the term was invented: that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people they are going to affect. We are getting there, but it has taken a long time, as other Members have already said. The forthcoming Scottish referendum clearly brings a new cross-party and UK-wide focus to the need for a review of the situation. Today’s joint statement from the three Scottish leaders is obviously in that spirit.
The word “devolution” is usually used in terms of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while “decentralisation” is what people talk about in terms of England. There is a rather false distinction between the two, and I would argue that we need to try to bring them together. This Government have made huge strides in decentralising power within England using the City Deals. There has been a real difference there, but there is a degree of democratic deficit. These agreements between central and local government only go so far: they are, to some extent, about decentralisation of delivery but they do not empower local government in the same way that we have with devolution elsewhere.
I very much agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who I am sorry is not able to be here today, when he said in the debate on the gracious Speech last week:
“We clearly recognise in Scotland and Wales the distance and resentment towards Westminster-dominated decisions. We need to recognise that the same instincts apply in Newcastle, Norwich, Cumberland and Cornwall”.—[Official Report, 11/6/14; col. 460.]
Hear, hear to that. The Secretary of State for Scotland, my right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael, recognised this too in his radio interview yesterday.
We have proposed a Bill to enable English devolution to fill this huge gap in our devolution ambitions for the United Kingdom. Credit should be given to Peter Facey, formerly of Unlock Democracy, who wrote about such a model in 2011. The principle is simply that parts of England may well want to take up powers akin to those already devolved to the Welsh Assembly, and that they should be able to do so provided they meet certain criteria. This would be true devolution within the United Kingdom, but it need not all happen at once in every part of England.
Dr Andrew Blick, in a very useful publication last week, proposed some similar ideas. He envisages devolution, first, of administrative power, then later of some legislative power—as happened respectively in 1998 and 2006 for Wales—and, in due course, of financial power to local authorities or groups of them. That is already happening—the City Deals are bringing together groups of local authorities in England in a very positive way. The menu of powers that he sets out is much as in the Government of Wales Act: everything is available, from agriculture to education and health services.
However, like the Spanish autonomous communities, different places could take up more, or less, responsibility according to local demand and the strength of local political identity. Having just spent the weekend in my old North Cornwall constituency, I can assure friends across the House that the demand there would be for a full assembly, like that of Wales and with the same powers. In other places, there may be a different timetable and a different objective. Dr Blick said,
“an English Parliament would not address the issue of over-centralisation in a meaningful way”,
and that it would be “a destabilising force”. Finally, he said:
“The history of federal experiments in other parts of the world suggests that when one component of the federation is so much greater than any other, the arrangement is difficult to sustain”.
I suggest that there is a trap in creating an unbalancing, centralising English Parliament without addressing further devolution within England.
For these reasons, I really think that the English question does not have an all-English answer. It is really not good enough. Real devolution within England through an enabling Act of the kind I have been able to only briefly describe—first to those areas which demand it and later to those areas that envy it—could advance the cause of really radical decentralisation in the whole of the United Kingdom, including its largest constituent part. This is a very timely debate and I am sure it will not be the last time that we will address this issue, as many noble Lords have already indicated, over the coming months. I welcome that.
My Lords, I have only one minute and therefore will obviously be brief. I thoroughly welcome the comments that have been made about local government. Recently, it has been neglected. It is an excellent employer, and the officials and elected members bring services to every section of our community—young, old and those who are disabled. They have risen to the occasion when the Government have called upon employers to find apprentices. They have embarked on apprenticeship schemes. Looking around this Room, it is the case that many of us—I include myself—found that serving on a local authority was a training ground for politics. It was a good apprenticeship, and I am glad that they are not being overlooked in this debate.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in putting on the record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, for securing this debate today. It is a timely opportunity to explore what plans the Government have for further devolution in the UK following a no vote in the Scottish referendum on 18 September, fewer than 100 days away. I should say at the outset that I am a supporter of the Better Together campaign and very much hope that Scotland votes no. It is a decision for the people of Scotland and we will respect that decision, but for me it is unthinkable that Scotland would not be part of the union of nations that has been so successful in these islands, a union into which I was born and where nations stand together as equals.
It is also a matter of regret that because no one has been appointed to this House from the Scottish National Party—I am well aware that that is a decision of that party—we fail to have its arguments put up for debate. I would say to the Government that there are individuals who are not members of the SNP who would put the nationalist viewpoint and be excellent Members of this House. I am thinking in particular of the second presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, the right honourable Sir George Reid, who I had the privilege of serving with on the Electoral Commission for four years. He would be a welcome addition to your Lordships’ House.
In the five minutes I have to speak in this debate, it is impossible to touch on all the implications for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, as well as London, but I shall make some brief remarks that I hope are helpful. I agree with my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock that the debate and the period after the referendum should be conducted with respect for other people’s views. It is unfortunate to see that that is often not the case for so-called cybernats. They often rain abuse down on people and that is totally unacceptable.
Devolution in the nations outside England has been a great success. The institutions are accepted, are growing in strength and are gaining new powers as they mature, which I very much welcome. I agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, about the framework of principles and a conference for a new union. The report by a commission of Scottish Conservatives, headed by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is an important document. It highlights for me that the Conservative Party has embraced and accepted the Scottish Parliament and devolution, which is not something that it was always known for. The case for a further transfer of power is unstoppable whether you call it devo-max, devo-plus or something else.
Although I have lived and worked in many parts of the UK, London is where I was born, and it is my home. My noble friend Lady Adams rightly said that the West Lothian question has to be answered by people living in England. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, was right when he talked about the need to improve our constitution and the equitable treatment of our people. I was recently elected as a Labour councillor in London. Although the structure has changed since I was last a councillor 20 years ago, in terms of the powers exercised by a London borough there has been no dramatic change. That is the position in the rest of England as well. It is a real problem that whichever Government come to power after next May will have to address.
In its report, Raising the Capital, the independent London Finance Commission recommended a modest devolution of five property taxes to London government to allow it to invest in the infrastructure needed to underpin the capital’s future growth. This would give London control of approximately £12 billion per year, an increase of only £5 billion per year on what it presently controls. London government and the Core Cities Group also came together to call for this important devolution for all of England’s great cities. This is something I very much support.
In replying to this debate will the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, set out what plans the Government have to make it clear to people living in Scotland that quickly and without question there will be further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament? Will he also comment on how the Government could underpin the Scottish Parliament to make it impossible for there not to be a Scottish Parliament, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed? Will he tell us how the Government are going to address the deficit of devolved powers that people living in England presently have to live with? Does he see the devolution of power to England only through local government, as it is at present? What is his position on unitary local government for England, as called for by the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, in his report on searching for growth, as opposed to the patchwork local government we have in England at present? Does he think the case for regional government or regional assemblies in England is dead or could it be brought into the debate on governance and devolution in England?
I am sorry that I do not have time to make further points, but this has been an excellent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and I thank him for it. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has many things to reply to.
My Lords, I metaphorically tore up my speech before I started. Time is short. This has been a helpful debate and has raised the sort of questions that we will all have to consider over the next 90 days—and well beyond.
We need to remember just how far we have moved. I say that as someone who first joined the Liberal Party machinery of government panel. I was a graduate student in 1965 and we were talking about devolution and regional government. I remember that in 1974 my wife and I, as academics, were invited into the Treasury Constitution Unit that had just been established. Several of the senior officials there could not understand how you could manage a national economy if you allowed any autonomy whatever in financial terms. My wife and I tried to say, “Yes, but in Germany they do it this way, as they do in the United States and Canada”. The officials still could not understand. We have moved a long way already. Think how far we have gone since the Maclennan-Cook discussions of 1996 and 1997; it is some considerable distance.
We are, however, left with the tremendous problem of the democratic deficit in England and its highly centralised pattern of government. We should all recognise that part of that problem is the dominance of London, economically as well as politically. We must all take that economic dominance into account in considering the future of the United Kingdom because London continues to generate an enormous amount of wealth, which needs equitably to be shared around the regions and nations. My noble friend Lord Purvis talks about fiscal federalism, which is about hard bargaining or “finance ausgleich”—who gets what share and how much shall be distributed. That is at the core of Finanzausgleich, which is much better organised than the disorganised US federalism. Incidentally, in established federal systems—as the noble Lord suggested—you can never say that we have reached the end of the journey. Federal politics is about a constant battle between state rights and federal powers. A pull and push in each direction is normal politics—just as in the European Union we have had a constant and continuing battle between those who say that we have to do things at the European level and those who say, “No, we don’t; we have to have it at the nation-state level”. That is what international, domestic and local politics necessarily provide.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, quoted Margo MacDonald, who said that we should all work together for the good of Scotland. I suggest that we should work for the good of the UK, not just Scotland. That is post the Scottish referendum; if, as we all hope, the result is no, we need to address this question. Between now and then, no one could cook up a proposal for a conference for a new union, or constitutional convention that could be agreed or accepted at least half-heartedly by the Mail and the Telegraph. We can raise the question—I encourage all noble Lords to do so: where do we go after September? It raises fundamental questions about the future of the kingdom, including, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, the role of the second Chamber of what in some ways then becomes the federal Parliament.
It may well be that at that stage we move towards some sort of constitutional convention. We have to recognise that, against the cynicism of much of the national media and the disengagement of much of our national public, it will be quite a job for all of us as politicians to carry the public with us when we say that a more fundamental look at the balance of our political life nationally, regionally, locally and internationally is needed. After all, the future of the United Kingdom in the European Union is part of the picture. The arguments made by English nationalists for leaving the European Union are not entirely dissimilar from the arguments that Scottish nationalists make for leaving the United Kingdom. Therefore part of what those of us who care about good governance have to do is to link all these different levels together.
As somebody who accepted a job at Manchester University rather than Edinburgh University when I was 26, and therefore have spent my adult life in the north of England rather than in Scotland, I am concerned about the marginalisation of the north of England. I am told that a number of senior officials in local authorities in England have been saying to their Scottish counterparts: “Don’t leave us; we need you. We need you to help us to counterbalance the dominance of London and the south-east.” That is a very important part of this. As one of the relatively small number of people in this Chamber who represent, in a sense, the north of England, I am constantly struck by the assumption that when something happens in London it is important, when something happens in Edinburgh or Cardiff, well we notice it a bit, and when it happens in Bradford, Leeds or Newcastle we are not quite sure what it was, but besides we certainly did not report it, even in what used to be called the Manchester Guardian.
Birmingham is a local authority with a population larger than that of Northern Ireland and roughly comparable to that of Wales. This morning I heard on the “Today” programme a former Minister say that one could not trust Birmingham to run its own schools. There is a mindset inside the Westminster bubble which has accepted that perhaps one can now allow the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish—to a certain extent—to run their own affairs, but one certainly could not allow Manchester or Leeds to do so.
The City Deals are at long last beginning to push power back to what might become the English regions. Part of the conversation we all need to have after September is what we mean by the English regions and whether they will be city regions or something different, and how far one can allow Cornwall to split off from the south-west because we all know that all good Cornishmen hate Bristol. What do we do about the south-east as a whole, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, remarked, is so dominant a part in population and wealth terms of our United Kingdom? How do we ensure that the south-east continues to share its wealth with the rest of the country? The whole of the country, including Scotland, would benefit from the sharing of that wealth; it has to be done. Where do we move on that? We move perhaps towards the discussion of a constitutional convention. All parties need to consider to what extent they put that in their manifestos. They will then have to define what they mean by it. Then, of course, we cannot move towards a constitutional convention unless there is some consensus on it. It has to be cross-party and beyond party if it is to be successful.
Over the centuries the British constitution has been built in a series of fits of absence of mind and occasional crises. We are discussing now something which might be a little more rational and a little more long-sighted—it is very un-English in this respect—but we should go for it. The Government have no policy on this and intend to have no policy between now and the election. However, it is precisely the sort of thing that others ought to be floating if it is felt that we need to think in the round about how the substantial changes in the structure of government in the United Kingdom over the past 20 years have taken us to a point where we need to reconsider some of these fundamentals.
I would add—I say this personally, not as a Minister—that the role of the House of Commons, as such, is also a very important part of this. I have found in 18 years in the House of Lords that the House of Commons leaves more and more legislative scrutiny to the second Chamber, while the first Chamber does, in many ways, less and less.
Therefore, there are very some large issues which we have to consider. We have to attack the public scepticism about democratic politics as a whole. That is also part of this. We have to revive a degree of respect in regional government, regional autonomy and local government. I had not realised how sharp a problem that is in Scotland as well as in England. Then we need to work together across the parties and beyond in order to reshape something.
I have learnt over the past three years that there are many, particularly on the Opposition Benches in the House, who regard compromise and consensus as almost dirty words that are linked to “coalition”. Having been in coalition for four years, I would defend the concept of compromise and consensus in coalition if we are to address these fundamental issues, something the British have been pretty bad at doing most of the time. We are going to have to build a broad coalition of interested parties from all the regions of England, from the other three nations of the United Kingdom and from civil society as well as all parties, in order to promote the good governance that we all want.
The Minister has not been supported by any civil servants in the debate and yet he has done a brilliant job. However, I am a bit suspicious when Whitehall does not turn up. That is because my experience over the past few months is that Whitehall seems to be ignoring this issue. Perhaps I may ask the Minister how he is going to feed the ideas that have been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Kennedy, into the Whitehall machine. It is important not only that we have the sympathy of the Minister but that we have the Whitehall machine behind him as well.
I thank the noble Lord for that barbed compliment. Of course it is purely accidental that I have made a good speech without officials being present. I can assure him that I meet the officials fairly regularly and that I meet my Conservative colleagues fairly regularly. I also talk to Labour colleagues fairly regularly. This is one of those areas where we all share an interest in raising various broad matters. It means that people like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others should be writing to the newspapers and appearing on radio and television programmes to discuss them. We have at last reached the point where people understand that there is going to be a Scottish referendum, and that is progress. Three months ago you hardly saw any mention of it in the London press. We can now begin to talk about what is to happen after September, and that takes us further.
Those of us who are interested in successful decentralisation within England, which is part of what the coalition Government are now trying to do with the City Deals, want to take them further and link them into the devolution-plus which follows in Scotland, the implementation of the report of the Silk commission for Wales and similar developments in Northern Ireland. That is a very large agenda, and it is not something that the British have been good at handling. The sad history of attempting to discuss House of Lords reform over the past 25 years and more shows how bad we are at considering constitutional reform in a calm way. Let us approach this in a different manner. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that as far as I am concerned, I along with many of my Conservative colleagues recognise that after Scottish devolution we will have to move. That is what the three parties in Scotland have just committed themselves to, and that is how we will go forward. I note the point about entrenchment; it is not something that the British constitution has done before. I note the point about a changed role for the Treasury and I note the argument that we need a bigger overview in some form of the structure of the British constitution.
This is a debate that will continue and I trust that all noble Lords will be active participants in it, but this is the point at which, without my officials, I should stop and thank everyone for a very constructive debate.
Committee adjourned at 6.03 pm.