Devolution (Constitution Committee Reports) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:58 pm on 9th October 2017.

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Photo of Lord Lang of Monkton Lord Lang of Monkton Conservative 3:58 pm, 9th October 2017

My noble friend makes a very fine and highly relevant point, with which I agree.

Successive British Governments have failed to adapt to devolution. Again, it has seemed to be a case of devolve and forget. With so much now devolved, so much asymmetry, so much potential for playing catch-up and leap-frog among the different Administrations, and so many overlapping and shared competences between devolved and central government, it stands to reason that there must be a new mindset, on all sides, of co-operation and mutual understanding. That is not easy, I acknowledge, where separatism is the predominant, even the only, motivation, but in the interests of good government it is essential.

In an attempt to disaggregate the problem, we identified some key elements that underpin the union. These include the economic union, the social union, the political union, the cultural union and the security and defence union. Any weakening of those would, in our view, cause grave damage to the nation state. We urged the Government to identify which public responsibilities were, in their view, essential to the effective functioning of the union, so that they could be protected in any future consideration of devolution; and we identified a number of underlying principles that might assist that. Unfortunately, the Government in their response, published almost a year later, declined to do so beyond the headline areas of defence, foreign policy and, ironically, the constitution.

We called for a devolution impact assessment to accompany any future proposals in order to measure any negative effect that they might have on the UK’s core responsibilities and to measure any planned benefit to the relevant devolved Administration and any impact, good or bad, that might be felt in other Administrations. Again, regrettably, the Government declined to commit to those proposals. Will my noble friend the Minister now bring a fresh eye to what we seek and perhaps persuade his colleagues in government to have another look at all of this?

Among our other recommendations we called, yet again, for the replacement of the inadequate and inequitable Barnett formula with a new needs-based system. It is a continuing disgrace that the distribution of resources from the Treasury should take no account of the relative needs of the countries and regions that it is intended to help. We expressed our strong opposition to full fiscal autonomy, which would break the union apart. My personal view is that although the need is obvious for fiscal accountability, we may already have gone too far in the forms chosen for fiscal devolution and indeed with the scope of welfare benefits. We recommended that if there should ever be a future independence referendum, provision for it and its proposed terms should be set out in primary legislation and laid before this Parliament for proper scrutiny by all parts of the United Kingdom.

We recommended that in future, UK government services should be clearly branded throughout all parts of the United Kingdom in order to make sure that the electorate understand where they came from and in case the devolved Governments should by chance forget to tell them. We emphasise the vital importance that the BBC, as the national public service broadcaster, should continue without qualification to provide a common UK-wide service, particularly on news and current affairs, in addition to whatever regional and local services it may provide.

I could go on—in combination, our two reports contained 115 paragraphs of conclusions and recommendations—but I feel that I have already detained the House too long and I hope that other noble Lords will choose to bring out any important points that I may have missed. I therefore conclude by saying that the problems that the Constitution Committee sought to address are still with us. The threat of those who would tear Scotland out of the union may be in abeyance, but it has not dissolved. I am conscious that Northern Ireland is beset by serious problems. Its condition is fragile and I leave it to other noble Lords, better informed than I, to address them should they choose. Similarly, Wales, originally lured into devolution by the slimmest of margins, has its own distinctive subtleties and priorities that others may wish to draw out. My purpose is to emphasise the welfare of the union on which we all depend. Devolution is not a casual throwaway matter. We are all a part of the main. It is time to acknowledge the failings of the past and the problems and dangers that they have brought and, with care and persistence, to resolve them. I beg to move the Motion in my name.