Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:39 pm on 8th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 5:39 pm, 8th June 2015

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Goddard of Stockport. I spent three very happy years in Manchester, at university, and follow the fortunes of that city and its football teams with much interest. To take up the theme of the auction of how many years we have been in local government, it is 43 years ago to last month that I was elected on to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council—but, unfortunately, it was done away with within two years by the Local Government Act 1972.

In principle, I would not oppose any Bill that brings decision-taking closer to the people and the communities impacted by those decisions. So I welcome very much this devolution in England and am glad that all parties at last are signed up to it, but in practice I have one or two reservations that this Bill is another piece of ad hoc devolution that will result in a complex patchwork of government. It could create confusion and a lack of clarity and, at worst, could frustrate efforts to achieve a coherent UK-wide solution, which we heard about at Oral Question Time today and which I suspect is widely sought.

As noble Lords may well imagine, my first issue on which I seek clarification—and I shall come back to these points in Committee—is whether this Bill applies directly or tangentially to Wales. Clause 12, the extent clause, says of course that it applies to England and Wales, but I realise that that may refer only to the jurisdiction as opposed to the geographical applicability. That wording can sometimes be misleading. In that context, I draw attention to the fact that Clause 10 specifically refers to England only, but the implication of that is that other clauses might not be restricted to England only. Are they relevant where local authorities co-operate, for example, on a cross-border basis? I think of the co-operation that is potentially going on between Cardiff and Bristol, for example, or between Merseyside and Clwyd. There needs to be clarity in those matters, and if it is a matter of having parallel powers within the National Assembly, I would be interested in knowing whether that is being facilitated.

One significant example of uncertainty is in Clause 3, which refers to the possible transfer of answerability of police commissioners to mayors by adding provisions to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. Responsibility for police commissioners or the police in general has not been devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, but local authorities, of course, have been totally devolved to the Assembly. So there is a question of how the interplay of those two dimensions comes together. Are the powers provided by that part of the Bill deemed to be transferred or transferable to the National Assembly? If not, English cities will have more powers than the National Assembly on these matters, clearly with anomalies arising out of that. Assuming that the powers conferred by this Bill are not intended to apply to Wales, can we assume that, by implication, the National Assembly has the power enabling it if it so wishes to introduce parallel legislation in Wales in a parallel or a quite different form? That is a particularly relevant question in matters relating to the police commissioners.

Can we assume that significant powers will be devolved to Manchester and elsewhere by this Bill without the need for a referendum? I take it that that is the reading of the Bill that we have heard about today. Noble Lords will recall that in Wales we had to go through two referenda, in 1997 and 2011, to get full powers over matters such as housing, health and transport, which are being devolved today. Can we assume that we shall not be subject to further referenda in Wales relating to the devolution of powers that may come for the police and, possibly, taxation powers?

This issue touches on the question of funding. The Conservative Party strongly emphasised in the recent election campaign in Wales that meaningful devolution must entail financial responsibility and that devolved authorities must have responsibility for raising at least part of their resources as well as the responsibility as to how it is spent. The Bill before us today is very light on questions of giving the devolved authorities any new taxation powers, and it explicitly refers to the mayor as not having borrowing powers, in line 26 on page 4. So if the new responsibilities currently exercised at Westminster are to be devolved, is it the Government’s intention to amend or replace the Barnett formula with regard to funding or introduce new funding mechanisms? If so, what will be the impact of those on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, or will it be handled by other legislation devolving new taxation powers? Clearly, there needs to be the ability for authorities in areas as large as Greater Manchester to have a wide degree of taxation powers if it is to get to grips with the application of the powers being given in the areas under question.

All these questions will need answers. So far, with UK devolution, development has been uneven and incoherent over recent years. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised the question of how we ensure that rural England does not fall behind in the race to make sure that the city regions have the power that they clearly need. We need to see changes in the overall balance within the UK, but it has to be a balanced package between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England itself—but also within England, if the thing is to make coherent sense and to work.