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Volume 762: debated on Thursday 2 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to establish a Constitutional Convention to consider the implications of devolution for each part of the United Kingdom; and whether they plan to publish a white paper setting out the consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom of fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

The Government have no plans to establish a constitutional convention. Our focus must be on delivering the commitments that we made to the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government do not support full fiscal autonomy for Scotland and have no plans to publish a White Paper on the issue. The Government’s priority is the delivery of a balanced constitutional settlement that is fair and sustainable for all parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, that was not terribly helpful. Given that the Barnett formula allocates resources to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the basis of a set proportion of the amounts voted on English programmes by the House of Commons, how can it be fair, sensible or even democratic to introduce English votes for English laws while retaining the Barnett formula as the means of funding? Is it not high time that Conservatives returned to Conservative principles: that constitutional reform should be careful, cautious and on the basis of consensus?

My Lords, the Government will honour the commitment to retain Barnett made by all three party leaders in the run up to the referendum. The fact that Barnett has endured for 40 years and 16 Scottish Secretaries shows that there are no easy alternatives. However, the significance of Barnett will reduce as the Scottish Parliament becomes 50% self-funded. The UK Government and the Scottish Government will agree a new fiscal framework to work alongside Barnett, which must deliver a financial settlement that is fair to both Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. There will be more said in Statements in this House and the other place about English votes for English laws but Scottish MPs will continue to take part, as now, in the votes that determine the block grant allocations.

My Lords, before the Prime Minister plunges into further fragmentation of the United Kingdom, is it not clear that the Government should make a positive response to the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and others for a full, broad and thorough constitutional commission? Would that not be the best way to ensure some vital coherence in planning for the future? Would it not be democratically and strategically superior to the short-termist stumbling that is now putting the union in serious peril almost by accident?

My Lords, the Government are addressing the imbalances in our constitutional arrangement which we inherited from the previous Labour Government. Let me give two examples. The Scottish Parliament was set up with significant powers to spend money but little responsibility for raising it; and the previous Labour Government established a strong Scottish Parliament without properly addressing the implications for England. Our programme addresses each part of our United Kingdom and we are committed to a balanced settlement for all parts of it.

My Lords, will the Minister now address the wider point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth? He will be aware that a large number of Members on his side of the House—his noble friends—have consistently argued against the piecemeal, ad hoc approach to the constitution. Surely, at the very least, the present proposals put before the House at the other end of the Corridor which will be put before our House later on, should form part of the agenda of a wider consideration of the implications of devolution for Parliament and our constitution. Surely a constitutional convention is the only way forward so that these issues can be considered in their proper context.

My Lords, when discussing constitutional conventions, what always springs into my mind is a remark made by, or attributed to, Harold Wilson when talking about royal commissions—“They take minutes and last years”. I cannot see any evidence of public support for a convention. The public want us to get on and deliver the constitutional commitments we have made to each part of our United Kingdom.

My Lord, given the multiple uncertainties facing the constitutional arrangements of our islands, in the Minister’s judgment, of what magnitude does a constitutional question have to be before it justifies a convention?

I acknowledge the noble Lord’s great expertise in this area. The Government are addressing the various strands of our constitution in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. Our priority is to deliver those commitments rather than spending time on a constitutional convention. Of course, if others want to set up their own convention they are welcome to do so. I read with interest the debate last week on the constitution. It is clear that constitutional conventions mean all things to all people. As my noble friend Lord Bridges said in this House last week, getting agreement on a convention would itself need a convention.

My Lords, the Minister would have picked up concern on every side of the House on this particular issues and I, along with a number of Members on this Bench, share that concern. In principle we would like to explore the possibility of a constitutional convention. The pastoral letter that the bishops issued earlier this year stated:

“The impatience of politicians or the desire for party advantage must not be the driver for constitutional change”.

If we are not going to have a constitutional convention, how do Her Majesty’s Government intend to involve as many as possible of those people who are passionate to be involved in this so that together we can think carefully about the vital question of the future governance of the UK?

I am sure that noble Lords in this House and others outside it will come forward with proposals. The Government will engage with those proposals and will be happy to discuss them.

My Lords, if we are taking turns, it is actually the turn of the Conservative Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Lang, is the chairman of the Constitution Committee.

My Lords, reflecting on the fact that the unbalanced form in which the Scottish Parliament was created was in fact the product of the deliberations of a constitutional convention, I welcome my noble friend’s caution on these matters. They may sound simple and easy to set up, but they may create many more difficulties along the line. However, I urge him to reflect on the importance of consultation: this should be carried out during a reflective period of calm when the House is not subject to a constant flow of devolutionary measures that have not been properly considered and have to be rushed through this House. A period of calm reflection is surely the best way forward.

I can only agree with my noble friend that consultation is a key element in any proposals that come forward. Since January, when we tabled the draft clauses for the Scotland Bill, we have been consulting and we will continue to do so.