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Devolution: England

Volume 767: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for engagement and consultation with the people of England on devolution of powers in England in the light of the devolution settlements in the other countries of the Union.

My Lords, devolution of power from Whitehall is about handing power and decision-making responsibilities back to local areas. It is for local partners, not the Government, to decide on the best way to engage their communities and neighbourhoods. We have already seen this happen across the country. From city regions in our northern powerhouse to towns and rural villages in the south, devolution is igniting the spirit of localism in ways that we have not seen for decades.

I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer, but is she aware that much of the discussion between leaders and the Government involves talking about bespoke deals? In the light of the work that has been done on devolution in the other countries of the union, is it not time that the Government engaged with the people of England to find out what they are looking for in terms of devolution and the future of the union as we move towards a much more federal system?

My Lords, leaders are nominated by their councils and are democratically elected. I do not think that the leader who did not discuss these issues with the members of the council would be leader for very long. These are the democratically elected heads who will then engage with government.

My Lords, given the votes on the creation of a mayor for London and on devolution to Scotland and Wales, and, at the Government’s behest, a vote in eight councils, only one of which resulted in support for an elected mayor, why have the Government set their face against the electorate having a vote on whether to have elected city mayors in the context of their devolution programme? Is their position by any chance related to the observation by Nick Boles—then, as now, a Minister—that the only chance of the Conservatives regaining Manchester was for the city to have an elected mayor? If not, how do they justify this apparently irreversible imposition?

My Lords, the thought of Manchester having a Conservative mayor is a great one but, having lived there for some years, I am not sure that it is very likely to happen any time soon. Obviously the referendum some years ago on having a mayor was held under totally different principles from those that we have today, and local authorities can engage with their communities and their electors in any way that they see fit.

My Lords, it is the turn of the Conservative Benches. I think it is worth me alerting the Labour Benches to the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is trying to get in as well.

My Lords, could my noble friend explain the implications for public services in England and expenditure of the Smith commission proposals for a no-detriment principle?

Will the Minister discuss with her colleagues the fact that there is no structure whatsoever for any form of accountability or input by the electorate to the northern powerhouse because a framework does not exist to do so; and that, where there are combined authorities, unlike London, there is no assembly or direct democratic input? Without this, the legitimacy of the changes will not be sustained and people will become as mistrustful of what is happening at subregional level as they are of what is happening at national level.

My Lords, in terms of accountability with government, clear expectations will be laid out in the agreement between combined authority areas that have devolutionary agreements and the Government. This Government have absolutely no intention of revisiting the assembly model. It was made very clear in Greater Manchester that when it agreed to have a mayor, it did not want another layer of government but an eleventh leader.

My Lords, could I remind the Minister of the very low turnout for the police and crime commissioner elections? That resulted in part from very poor public engagement with those elections. Does she fear, like I do, that there will be a similar problem of a lack of consultation and engagement with the electorate when it comes to elected mayors and that there may be a similarly very low turnout, which would not help the new structure?

My Lords, I refer noble Lords back to the process in London. When we first had an elected mayor in London there was scepticism, to say the least, about how effective the London mayor might be and how popular it might be as a concept. Fast-forward some years from that process, and we find that people are fighting to get that nomination and it has become one of the most sought-after positions in the country.

My Lords, it is the turn of the Labour Benches, but I urge the noble Lords to decide between themselves whom they would like to give way.

My Lords, is it right for a small country such as the United Kingdom to have four nations developing systems of government at different speeds? Do the Government rule out a constitutional convention, rather than allowing piecemeal development?

My Lords, a constitutional convention is not on the cards at the moment. However, the Government are clear that they will not impose any sort of identikit model on each area. It is up to each area to decide how it wishes to take forward devolution proposals, and to take those forward with government.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as one of those who voted against having a directly elected mayor in London in the referendum, every time I get into my car I wonder whether I was not right?

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, reminds the House, which the Minister did not, that there was a referendum in London and a two-thirds majority voted in favour of having an elected mayor. That was different from the election of police and crime commissioners, when there was no such referendum. Of course, the date was selected by a shabby deal done inside the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which meant that we ended up with those elections in November. But why is it not permissible for the new combined authorities to have a referendum on their governance structures and how that process will happen? Surely that would buy in support—as it did in London, for everyone with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—for the principle of having a directly elected mayor.

My Lords, the Conservative Party made explicit in its manifesto its intention to have mayors for large cities which agreed to that. For that reason, the principle was outlined before the election. The people engaging with the Government are themselves elected members.