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Devolution and Decentralisation: Constitutional Commission

Volume 754: debated on Monday 23 June 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have considered setting up a United Kingdom constitutional commission to examine further devolution and decentralisation within the United Kingdom.

My Lords, since taking office the Government have established two constitutional commissions—the McKay and Silk commissions. The Government have also noted the recommendations of the Calman commission. The Government have implemented those recommendations through the Scotland Act 2012 and have implemented the recommendations of Part I of Silk’s report for the Wales Act. Ministers are considering recommendations of the McKay commission. The Government have not at present contemplated a further, broader convention.

Is the Minister aware that all these commissions caused the problem because there is growing concern about the piecemeal nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom and the consequent English democratic deficit? That has resulted in the setting up of an all-party group pressing the Government to look at it in a comprehensive way. Each of the three parties seems to be moving in this direction. Would it not be sensible for the Government now to announce that a constitutional commission will be set up to look at constitutional change throughout the whole of the United Kingdom in a comprehensive and coherent way, and preferably before 18 September?

My Lords, I am a veteran. I was a young academic 40 years ago when the Kilbrandon commission, which took four years, looked at the overall balance of the United Kingdom including the Crown dependencies. It is not felt at present that a commission of that length would help. It has been the tradition in this country to move piecemeal, part by part and to establish conventions. We are moving with the English question through the city deals—the noble Lord may have noticed from this morning’s announcement on the northern hub that we are moving towards decentralisation within England. So a number of things—not just with Scotland but with Wales, Northern Ireland and, at last, with England—are beginning to move.

My Lords, should not our efforts be concentrated at the moment on maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom before any further constitutional tinkering? Does my noble friend agree that if further powers are to be devolved to Administrations throughout the United Kingdom, it is a matter for the United Kingdom as a whole, not just for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland? In that context the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has a point.

My Lords, England is the most centralised industrial democracy at present. It has become more centralised over the past 40 or 50 years. That is one of the issues that remains outstanding. Graham Allen in his debate in the other place last week suggested, as chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, that all three parties should be using this last year before the election to contemplate how we approach putting the different parts of our devolved settlement together.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that whatever the outcome of the referendum in Scotland—whether it is a yes vote or no vote—the status quo is unlikely to be the final resting point of the argument? That being so, surely a piecemeal approach is not acceptable, particularly when in Scotland the Government appear to be offering taxation powers that were recommended by Silk for Wales, but which the Government have rejected for Wales. On what possible basis can there be coherent progress when that is the Government’s approach?

My Lords, Part II of the Silk report has only just been published and the Government are currently considering it. Given the amount of constitutional change and devolution over the past few years, the idea that we are in a status quo situation is not fair. We are moving and will have to move further. The question of how we move—whether we go to a UK-wide commission or, indeed, a convention, as the committee in the other place suggested—is one we all need to consider. The Government will certainly be thinking about this in the light of the September referendum, which, as the noble Lord rightly suggests, involves the future of Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions altogether.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it will be important to move on quickly in the event of a no vote in the Scottish referendum to deliver on the cross-party consensus for strengthening the Scottish Parliament among the three parties which do not support independence? My right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael has announced a conference on the new Scotland to meet shortly after the referendum to help bring that about. Does the Minister further agree that it will be necessary for a new Government, with a new mandate and a new Parliament after 2015, to provide a holistic review of what the refreshed union will be post-referendum? That is why cross-party support for a conference on the new union, concerning the relations between the nations and Westminster and the operation of Whitehall departments, will hopefully be important in bringing about an overall review, which will serve the strength of the United Kingdom in which we surely all have an interest.

My Lords, that is an interesting idea which we should all consider debating further. The northern parts of England have interests in common with Scotland in wanting to counter the dominance of London, which is a part of the problem as well as a huge advantage for the United Kingdom in economic terms. It is a part of the dialogue that we all need to have.

My Lords, Professor Anthony King has quite rightly described the current constitution of this country as a mess. Would not a constitutional convention help to clear up the mess by clarifying the muddle over asymmetrical devolution, by clearing up the devo-max in Scotland that dare not speak its name, by reasserting the authority of the Westminster Parliament and, above all, by at long last doing something about England and showing that it is not simply a bad football team?

We will leave the football team to one side. Constitutional conventions have, on the whole, taken place after revolutions—for example, in the United States, France and elsewhere. To go as far as a constitutional convention for the whole of the United Kingdom would be a radical and rational step. I encourage the noble Lord, as a rational radical, to pursue that. However, currently there is no public demand for it and I have not yet heard any major political party suggest it.