Devolution (Constitution Committee Reports) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 9th October 2017.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 4:25 pm, 9th October 2017

My Lords, I very much welcome the debate—we have three substantial reports to discuss. I also welcome the Minister to his new position. He has been thrown in at the deep end and I hope that he manages to survive this ordeal.

Given the two speakers who will follow me, I think that I have to speak for England, because no one is here doing that yet. I point first of all to the very useful table provided in the report, Brexit: Devolution. Noble Lords will see from the numbers there that the devolved regions together voted to remain; it is England which voted to exit. The margin in England was larger than the total margin in favour of exit—I have said this before in your Lordships’ House.

We have to understand that one reason for dissatisfaction in England—it may have been reflected in terms of Europe—is that it is the only undevolved region of the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Lang, said, the problem with devolution is that we have done it in a piecemeal fashion. I was told when I had my colonial education in India that that is the way we do things: we do not do things systematically; we do them one at a time. Suddenly, Brexit, among other things, has shown us the shortcomings of this approach. We have this great conflict between what the union is, what the devolved powers are and where the gaps in the arrangements are. One problem which will come up again and again in the months ahead is that, if we are to preserve the union—as, quite eloquently, the noble Lord, Lord Lang, said—we will have to do something about the problem of England. English votes for English laws was tried in a very gingerly fashion and I think that it has sunk without trace.

I do not think that it will happen but I will say it anyway: a constitutional convention or—God forbid—a royal commission will have to take on afresh the issue of the constitutional structure of the union after powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the situation of England left anomalous in that respect. We have toyed with the idea of regions of England having their own devolved governments or assemblies or something like that, but that went nowhere. In piecemeal fashion, we have now created some powerful mayors in large metropolitan areas, and there is now a movement in Yorkshire to have an independent Yorkshire or whatever it is. However, as a result of all these reports, I think that we have to come to terms with deciding what we are going to do about England. Are we going to have Westminster as a parliament for England and for the UK, or are we going to have a separate parliament for England and then have Westminster as the federal or the union parliament? It looks like an academic question, but I think it will come up again and again, because of dissatisfaction in England about lack of devolution.

The Barnett formula is one indication of this: every time the Barnett formula comes up, there is resentment in England that the same amount of money is not spent, per capita, in England as in Scotland. It may be a perfectly valid thing, because needs are different in different regions, but then you need to set an entire budget for each region, including England, on the basis of needs and then explain to people that, because the needs are dealt with equally and because they are different in different areas, this is why the Barnett formula exists; but nobody has ever done that. We have done the Barnett formula in an ad hoc fashion and it has long been reformed in an ad hoc fashion, without any reference to England.

I think it is very important that, as a result of these very important reports, we decide that now would be the best time, because Brexit is posing some very big challenges to us and when we are out, we will have problems. I was impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said about the problem of re-establishing the single market. We are all old enough to remember that we had a single market before we went into Europe—what happened to that? Apparently it disappeared because, along the way, we have devolved power. How did that happen without anybody finding out? That kind of question is very important. We had the Kilbrandon commission, as some noble Lords will remember, back in the 1970s, but I think we need another commission, or some serious thinking as to how we will deal with dissatisfaction in England about the constitutional arrangements. It has not come up in a big way except in the Brexit world.

One problem we will have is that if the union is to be preserved, and I think that is a very important issue, we have to ask what kind of federation the union will be. Will it be one large region, England, and the three devolved regions? We see the asymmetry of that in the Brexit vote results: we may think that four units voted, but one unit overwhelmingly cast 28 million out of the 34 million votes cast for Brexit, and it was England which carried the result. Given that, are we going to have just four devolved regions, including England, or are we going to break England up into 10 separate independent regions with their own assemblies, or whatever it will be? How will we decide the question of the single market or the questions identified by the noble Lord, Lord Lang, of the social union, the defence and foreign policy union, the economic union?

Such questions have to be posed in an abstract way at the beginning and then we have to discuss the practical arrangements, instead of doing the practical arrangements in a piecemeal fashion and then finding that we have anomalies in the arrangements we have made. We will have anomalies because we have not thought about these things systematically. I do not think I can go on much longer like this, in an abstract fashion, but the problem I see being raised by the reports of both the Constitution Committee and the European Union Committee is that something will have to be done about England. The only way to do something about England is to approach the question of the nature of the union formally, and decide once and for all how we are going to include the devolution of England within the overall framework of the union.