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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:02 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 1:02 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton, in his witty and elegant speech, moved the Motion for an humble Address to Her Majesty. His tone was, for the most part, light and genial. He did, however, refer to one passage in the gracious Speech. He noted the words:

“My Ministers will … work in co-operation with the devolved Administrations”,

and added, rather dryly, that,

“co-operation is a two-way street”.—[ Official Report , 8/5/13; col. 7.]

I take this observation as my starting point.

In March this year, the McKay commission report, or more properly the report of the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons, was published. The Government had asked the McKay commission in effect to deal with or attempt to solve the vexed West Lothian question posed famously by Tam Dalyell, the MP for West Lothian, in the devolution debates of the 1970s. Tam Dalyell pointed out that, post-devolution, MPs from outside England could help to determine laws that apply in England, while MPs from England would have no reciprocal influence on laws outside England in the policy fields for which the devolved Administrations would now be responsible. Sir William McKay was a distinguished Clerk of the House of Commons from 1998 to 2002, and his commissioners are a most distinguished group. Their answer is an interesting one.

The thrust of the McKay commission report is a suggestion that whenever measures separately affect England, or England and Wales, the voice of England is heard before the final word is spoken by the House as a whole. As Professor Yvonne Galligan, one of the commission’s members, expressed it on “The Thoughtful Scholar” blog, the essence is that,

“we want all MPs to retain the right of final say, while allowing for the voice of England to be heard”.

I am not sure that the West Lothian question is not fundamentally insoluble. As the McKay commission report quite rightly points out, the question predates Scottish issues. It was in fact initially an Irish issue: these questions were discussed between Parnell and Gladstone in the 1880s. They could not resolve the difficulty, the reason lying fundamentally in the fact that they could not define what a purely English question was. I am not sure whether this problem does not still lurk behind what is, in so many respects, a very impressive and interesting report.

However, the report at least signals quite clearly the existence of something: the growing element of an English question in our polity. It is quite disturbing, as your Lordships will see if they look at the commission’s tables of English public opinion, that there is a growing impatience with, for example, the level of public expenditure in the devolved Administrations. This is a matter which those of us who live in areas governed by those devolved Administrations, as I do, have to take into consideration. Those Administrations also have to consider a sentiment of growing edginess in English public opinion—perhaps not an explosive edginess, but an edginess that is certainly growing—about what appears to be a double weighting of the political class of Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales: the sense that, in principle, that political class has its own bailiwick, which cannot be interfered with, but that it can also play a decisive role in the affairs of England. In such a context, it is important not to add any new cause for exacerbation between the devolved Assemblies and the Westminster Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Lang, said yesterday, co-operation is a two-way street.

It is precisely for that reason that I have been disturbed by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s decision, as it seems, not to apply but to reject the recent Defamation Bill, which was passed by Parliament. There are very important reasons to be disturbed by this development. Perhaps selfishly, as an academic, I would stress that one of the core elements of that Bill is the attempt to expand the academic freedom of discussion and to protect those who write for peer-reviewed journals. It is very important for university culture throughout the United Kingdom generally that such a protection should be there, for both scientists and those who work in the humanities. It is important for those who work in universities in Northern Ireland, as I in fact do, that such a protection is there for them as well. In the struggle to have good universities, which is fundamental to the economic success of a region such as Northern Ireland, it sends out a bad signal if the local Assembly displays itself as fundamentally indifferent to the tone or substance of academic freedom as an issue.

More profound than that, of course, is the issue on which there has been much recent comment in the press: that Belfast would now become the new libel capital of the United Kingdom, London having lost its previously perceived role as libel capital of the world as a result of the changes in the law. If this were to happen and Belfast became, as the dark joke now has it, a town called Sue, it will place enormous, and I suspect in some way unfair, burdens on the local judiciary. It would send out a signal that again would be disturbing. One of our media lawyers in Belfast, Mr Paul McDonnell, unselfishly made the point than while it would increase his income enormously if this gap and the status quo remained, as envisaged by the Assembly, he would simply regard it none the less as morally unacceptable. He went on to say that,

“investigations in the public interest which concern well-funded entities will effectively be subject to censorship by the back door”.

Censorship by the back door is something which I do not think a devolved Assembly wants to get into or to sanction in any way.

I understand from newspaper reports that the Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland are uneasy about the McKay commission report. I can understand why they might feel that way. MPs from the devolved regions will be very nervous about anything that hints at all at creating a second-class status of MP. It is a very sensitive question within the United Kingdom, even though the report itself has tried to deal with it as subtly as it conceives to be possible. However, I quite understand why the Northern Irish MPs are, according to newspaper reports, uneasy and unsympathetic. As the Troubles have receded as a kind of natural focus of obsession for our MPs, the range of interventions made by Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland across the board on different policy aspects in Westminster life has been one of the most refreshing aspects of the work of this Parliament. I understand their unease but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lang, said, co-operation is a two-way street.

It might well be in the interests, at certain points, of the Scottish National Party or Alex Salmond to do things that exacerbate or irritate opinion in the rest of the United Kingdom, but it cannot be in the interests of those who represent Northern Ireland, or the great majority of them at the Westminster Parliament or the majority parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, similarly to exacerbate opinion in Westminster.