Constitutional Renewal — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:51 pm on 11th June 2009.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1:51 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I take that view. When the local church is also becoming the local Post Office and local shop, there is much we have to thank the church for and I strongly support that.

I felt puzzled as I listened to some of the earlier speeches. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, could have been made about political reform in 1831—and probably was—with its Burkeian approach to politics: slow growth, deep conservatism, not sure whether the French Revolution was a good idea and opposed to the guillotine. The noble Lord at least recognised that the Liberals have been interested in reform for "a considerable number of years". I remind him that it is 150 years, with an interest in Lords reform for 98 years so far. We are not wishing to push things too fast, just a little faster than we thought when we first met in the 1850s to talk about a party based on peace, retrenchment and reform.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, calls for a commission on the constitution and that really took me back. You will find in Volume 9 of the collected papers of the Kilbrandon commission on the constitution, which met between 1969 and 1973, a memorandum which I wrote as a young academic. It is just next to the memorandum on the constitutional relationship between the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies, which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, knows well. It is the only thing on the subject. As he has said to a Commons committee, it still leaves the relationship deeply ambiguous so that we do not quite know where we are on that. I recall, in the middle of that commission, my wife and I being invited into the Treasury to talk to the constitution unit then headed by Sir Michael Quinlan, whose requiem mass, sadly, I shall be attending next week. We spent a morning discussing whether it was possible to conceive of devolving financial responsibility from the Treasury to any devolved level of government. Treasury officials simply could not imagine that you could do this. The world has not changed at all in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that the one real example of proportional representation in this country is for the European Parliament. In the United Kingdom, we have a different system of election in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, for Scottish local government and in London. I have even voted in the London elections. Last week, Alex Salmond splendidly talked about the advantages of a minority government through a different electoral system which, he pointed out, has to negotiate with its opposition parties and has to persuade, not bully, bluster and force things through. I understood the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, as being strongly in favour of government that can force things through and does not have to negotiate or persuade. That for me, and others, is part of what is wrong.

I want to talk about four particular aspects of the British crisis: first, the executive dominance of Parliament; secondly, the central dominance of politics in Britain; thirdly, the whole new Labour project of government as delivery rather than dialogue and participation; and fourthly, the style of government we have. By "style" I mean action through initiative, the search for the daily headline, that Ministers must issue new instructions on almost everything and the whole destructive relationship between Westminster-obsessed media and centralised government. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on one thing: we need also to talk about the rights and responsibilities of the media and perhaps subject their pay and expenses to the same level of transparency to which they wish to subject ours. I would also quite like to subject their contributions to the British tax revenue base to similar scrutiny: the Barclay brothers operating out of Sark; Lord Rothermere claiming to be a non-domiciled person; and the News Corporation operating out of Bermuda.

The question of executive dominance of Parliament is clear to all of us. If we do not reduce the number of Ministers and abolish the unnecessary position of a Parliamentary Private Secretary, we will not regain a worthwhile Parliament and House of Commons. I did a quick count this morning of the number of Ministers in particular departments. The department of the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, now has 11 Ministers. Putting the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office together—they were after all one department—there are now 12 Ministers. The Lord Chancellor's Department used to have two Ministers and in those days the Home Office had five Ministers. It has grown. The Department of Carpets and Soft Furnishing—I mean, the Department for Children, Schools and Families—has seven Ministers, as does the FCO. The Department for Communities and Local Government has six. All of them are concerned to tell local authorities and schools what to do in their own particular ways. We could reduce the number of Ministers quite substantially, partly by devolving our autonomy back to local government. We have more Ministers than any other Government in Europe by a large margin.

Central dominance, with a stream of instructions, targets, demands for information and measurement is part of what has gone wrong with the whole basis of government in Britain. There has been a long-term trend, from the distrust of local government that Mrs Thatcher had to the distrust of local government that the Blair Government had—which is, after all, new Labour's distrust of old Labour, with all of those corrupt local councils scattered over the north of England. We have all these national schemes interfering in what used to be local autonomy, such as academies and building schools for the future.

I note that Michael Gove, as the shadow Minister for education, made a speech in Bradford the other week saying that he would impose faith schools throughout the country. From Bradford's point of view, the imposition of separate faith schools across West Yorkshire and east Lancashire is not the sort of thing that an MP from Surrey should think about terribly easily without understanding the difference of our local circumstances. To noble Lords who talk about the postcode lottery, I say that we are a diverse country. We do not have the same standards of services throughout the country; that is part of the myth of the postcode lottery. We should be delivering services in a different way and accepting that local circumstances are different.

The reinvigoration of local democracy is part of the key to regaining public trust. It is where most people interact with government and where they now find that they are facing distant offices and appointed quangos. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, defends the role of the MP in his constituency. That is partly because the MP has in many ways displaced what used to be local government. One of my party's MPs was telling me that half of the issues that come to his surgery are really local council matters. That is because we now have wards of 15,000 to 20,000 electors for most local representatives. We are the only developed democracy where local representation has been so weakened and has so little fiscal and financial autonomy.

What do I mean by "delivery rather than dialogue"? The whole new Labour project, in which delivery is what counts and the citizen is a customer and consumer—with public-choice economics, the new public sector management, the private finance initiative and large numbers of outside consultants brought in—has delivered public services that are seen by those who receive them as distant and ineffective. There are deep cost inefficiencies to this approach and huge contradictions between the Government's citizenship agenda, which talks of active citizens and involvement, and a public service delivery system which is done through regionally delivered contracts and outside consultants which therefore have no form of accountability at local level. I have listened to Hazel Blears twice in the past year on how to produce active citizenship. I did not understand her on either occasion.

Constitutional renewal is not just about Westminster; it is about the whole relationship between government and citizens. It is about a different approach to government. That is one reason why the simple election of a new Conservative Government—a sort of "Blair II", after new Labour—will not provide even the beginnings of any answer and, indeed, threatens only to lead to yet another cycle of popular disillusion. What we need is public services delivered more locally and more diversely. We need a leaner central government, a more independent Parliament and certainly a livelier, multi-level local democracy.

I am pleased and honoured that my party has asked me to chair a working group on how we provide local democracy; we will be working over the next six months. I look forward to seeing the Conservatives defining what they mean by "reinvigorating local democracy". I have read a number of their papers on this and I do not understand them any more than I understand Hazel Blears. I note that the Prime Minister yesterday talked about the reinvigoration of local democracy but, again, there was no content.

This is part of an approach to government in which we must start from the recognition that Westminster has lost public trust and must devolve authority back to the people through local democracy as well as cleaning up its own act.