My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friends in the Labour group in the House of Lords for agreeing to this topic and allowing me to speak to it. It is very important, as indicated by the number and distinguished nature of the speakers who have put their names down for the debate. I hope others will forgive me if I start by saying how pleased I am that my friend and former colleague, in the other place and in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has agreed to make his valedictory speech in my debate. I am honoured by this; we look forward to it very much indeed. But we shall miss his wisdom when he is no longer with us.
It is encouraging that we are debating a constitutional issue that is not Brexit. Is that not a relief? This issue is a long-standing interest of mine—some might even say that it is an obsession. I was first motivated to become interested in it in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the late Professor John P Mackintosh, a Member of Parliament whom some noble Lords will remember. He was a very powerful and eloquent advocate of the need for devolution of power away from Whitehall and Westminster to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. He was the author of the seminal book The Devolution of Power and a very good friend of mine. He and all of us who were concerned about devolution of power at that time saw a central metropolitan bureaucracy here in London that did not understand or take account of the different needs of the different parts of the country—not just Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but the regions of England.
We sought to remedy that for Scotland with the devolution of both legislative and administrative power to a Scottish assembly, as we called it at the time, and we campaigned for it. I am glad that my noble and good friend Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale will speak today, because he and I fought shoulder to shoulder in that campaign, along with my noble friend Lord Maxton, who I am glad to see is also here, and many others. Sometimes it seemed like a lone fight but it gathered momentum—if noble Lords will excuse that word—as we went along.
We succeeded in persuading the Labour Government to agree to a referendum, which was held in 1978, but frustratingly, although we got a majority in that referendum, it failed to achieve the 40% turnout threshold that had been forced into the legislation by opponents, led by the late George Cunningham. Sadly, 1979—a date I will never forget, as it was when I was honoured to be elected to the House of Commons—saw the return of a Tory Government, which meant that nothing was done to pick up the idea and campaign for devolution. Some felt that the opportunity had been lost for ever.
For once, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for intervening because he has reminded me of that, and we should keep reminding the people of Scotland that it was the SNP that helped to bring down Jim Callaghan’s Government and gave us Margaret Thatcher and a Tory Government for nearly 18 years.
Where was I? As a result, nothing was done by that Government and some of us felt that the opportunity had been lost. However, after some reflection, the campaign was revived and, although unfortunately we were not able to persuade the Thatcher Government to act, we came up with a very novel idea, which will be the central part of my argument today. It was that the Labour Opposition should take the initiative in setting up a convention.
Therefore, Labour, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, I am glad to say, along with the Greens and the Communist Party, set up the unique Scottish Constitutional Convention, consisting of all Scottish MPs, Peers and party and union representatives, as well as the Churches—one of the Church representatives, Canon Kenyon Wright, chaired the executive of the constitutional convention—and representatives from all civil society. The purpose was to devise a plan for a Scottish Parliament. In spite of subsequent claims to the contrary, neither the SNP nor the Tory party supported the convention officially, although, to their credit, individual Tories and nationalists did.
The report of that convention became the blueprint for the Scottish Parliament—almost every detail in the report was incorporated into the Bill for setting it up—and it enabled the Labour Government elected in 1997 speedily to introduce legislation to do so. It showed what can be done if all sections of society come together early on. Rather than legislation starting from a blank sheet of paper once a Government were elected, we had that blueprint.
That Scottish Parliament, as we know, has now been operating for nearly 20 years. Together with the subsequent Welsh Assembly and the revival of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, despite its recent suspension, it has given substantial, though variable, administrative and legislation devolution—perhaps best described as asymmetric devolution—to those three parts of the United Kingdom. But, as the House of Lords Constitution Committee rightly and wisely reported in 2016, that leaves England,
“the largest, most powerful nation in the UK … without separate recognition and … representation”.
It has also produced some anomalies. The late Tam Dalyell—although an opponent of devolution, he was my friend—used to argue that, as a Westminster MP, he was able to vote on education in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not in Blackburn, West Lothian, which he represented. It was useful for two towns to have the same name for him to make that comparison. That anomaly became known as the West Lothian question.
As we know, David Cameron tried to deal with the legislative democratic deficit faced by England with the unfortunately titled English votes for English laws, or EVEL—that is E-V-E-L, or maybe not—which has restricted non-English MPs from voting on purely English Bills at certain stages. However, a recent report from Queen Mary University concludes that it has not answered the West Lothian question decisively. It has instead opened up a series of new and equally intractable questions. It has been a damp squib at best, but is perhaps better described as a spectacular failure.
Only the kind of coherent and comprehensive devolution I am arguing for can resolve it. That brings me to administrative devolution, where—as my noble friend Lady Quin reminded me just yesterday—the English regions feel as alienated from Whitehall as Scotland did and does. Here there has been what might be called an à la carte menu—more like a dog’s breakfast—of different schemes with catchy titles such as northern powerhouse, metro mayors, city deals and Midlands engine. All this has resulted in a piecemeal pattern, with most of the powers still residing in Whitehall. For example, the northern powerhouse—as we heard earlier at Question Time, the mayor of Liverpool has resigned from it in protest—was described by the Institute for Public Policy Research last week as,
“a top-down agenda dominated by central government”.
Of course, much of rural England is outside this network and feels increasingly left behind. The disparity in fiscal devolution is reflected by the control of revenue. The Scottish Parliament now controls 43% of tax revenues, Wales 21% and Northern Ireland 14%, while English local authorities trail behind, collecting only 9% of their revenue.
The challenge is how to produce a more coherent and comprehensive, but not necessarily uniform—that is an important qualification—system of devolution for the whole of the United Kingdom, which addresses the English democratic deficit. Some argue in favour of an English parliament, which may be attractive for legislation but does not deal with the demand for administrative decentralisation to the regions. Various attempts to start regional devolution in England—including my noble friend Lord Prescott’s plan, which died with the failed referendum in the north-east of England—have perished because Whitehall departments clung on to the real powers. They kept the real powers and would not allow them to go to the proposed regions. Nor, of course, does that deal with legislation.
The clue to solving this conundrum lies in looking at the example of the Scottish Constitutional Convention I described earlier, which is why I strongly support setting up a UK constitutional convention to come forward with a coherent and comprehensive plan. It could advise on how decision-making can best be devolved administratively and legislatively, where appropriate, throughout England as well as the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Labour Party is committed to setting up such a convention, but only when elected, and the Liberal Democrats support such a convention to move towards a federal or quasi-federal UK. Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit supports a similar convention to build cross-party consensus, and advocates a high level of public engagement, which I hope we can all agree is essential. Others involved in this issue, including the Constitution Society, argue for and support the idea of a constitutional convention.
Such a structure could enable those of us—I know it is not all of us—who seek reform of the second Chamber to replace the House of Lords with an indirectly elected senate of the nations and regions. It would have some democratic legitimacy, but would not challenge the primacy of the directly elected House of Commons.
I am glad that we have one of the more flexible and powerful Ministers answering the debate today—flattery will get me everywhere, I hope, but it is true. I hope he will agree to look at setting up such a convention. I know he cannot give us an immediate answer but I hope he will take it to his colleagues. However, if the present Government refuse to set up a convention, I do not see why it cannot be done now by Labour and the other opposition parties, working together with Churches and civil society, as we did in Scotland. I have suggested this to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition on two or three occasions now. That way, we would have a blueprint ready to implement when we return to power—as inevitably we will. It was done by an enlightened Scottish Labour Party in the 1990s. Where Scotland led, surely the UK can follow.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on introducing this important and topical subject. I understand why he makes the call he does, but I reach a different conclusion on establishing a convention, as the term is normally understood.
Over the past two decades, we have seen constitutional change on a scale that has not been seen for 300 years. We have seen major constitutional changes over those centuries, but they have tended to be specific measures which have had time to settle in before some other major change has come along. There were several constitutional changes in the period from 1911 to 1918, but that is the closest we have come to change comparable to that of recent years.
As the noble Lord touched upon, several measures of constitutional change were introduced by the Labour Government returned in 1997. Each was justified by its advocates on its individual merits. There was no attempt to locate these measures within an intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change; they were essentially disparate and discrete measures. In 2002, when I introduced a debate on constitutional change in your Lordships’ House, the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, conceded that the Government had no overarching theory. The same applies to measures introduced under the coalition Government. That was entirely predictable, given that the coalition was formed of two parties which adopt diametrically opposed views of the constitution. In this Parliament, we have seen further and fundamental change.
Throughout this period, there has been no attempt to look holistically at our constitution, at how these changes affect it and at how they relate to one another. There is no clear view of the type of constitution deemed most appropriate for the United Kingdom. Successive Governments have not been able to identify their constitutional destination.
I appreciate that this analysis leads some to argue the case for a constitutional convention. However, as I shall argue, that is to get ahead of ourselves. As Professor Robert Hazell, to whom reference has already been made, has noted, a convention may be established for one or more reasons. These include—again as has been mentioned—to build a cross-party support for further constitutional reform; to harness expert opinion to chart a way forward; and to develop a more coherent overall reform package. He lists others, but they all have a common thread: namely, to come up with proposals, essentially to generate a package of constitutional reforms.
That omits a necessary stage. We are all familiar with the phrase, “If I was going there, I would not start from here”. A convention would focus on the destination—that is, where to go. My argument is that we need to step back and make sense of where we are. I have argued that we should be engaging in an exercise of constitutional cartography. For that reason, I have made the case not for a constitutional convention but for what I have termed a constitutional convocation.
Having a body to make sense of where we are has a number of advantages over a convention. It avoids—or, at least, does not raise to the same degree—issues of legitimacy that may attach to a body set up to come up with a new constitution for the United Kingdom. One can utilise expertise in a way—or at least to an extent—that may not be possible with a convention. It can also ensure that we understand where we are, rather than be under pressure to come up with some constitutional blueprint that may be either or both overly ambitious or politically contentious. Given what has happened in recent years, there may not be a popular appetite for more fundamental change. Indeed, current events reinforce the case for standing back and making sense of where we are.
If one looks at the period of our membership of the European Community and then the European Union, we regularly agreed changes but, in constitutional terms, we were always playing catch-up. We never stood back to establish clearly how our membership fitted with our constitution. Had we done so, we may not be in the situation we find ourselves in today.
Therefore there are problems with a constitutional convention. It is a problem if it seeks to produce prematurely a constitution for the United Kingdom. It is also a problem if, like the Kilbrandon commission, it ends up addressing only part of the constitution. We need to look at our constitution as a whole. That requires reflection, not rushing ahead of ourselves with a grand scheme. Hence my case for a body to put the change that has occurred within a clear and coherent constitutional framework.
Sir Sidney Low, in his short book, The British Constitution, published in 1928, wrote:
“In England we often do a thing first and then discover that we have done it”.
Let us first of all stand back and make sense of what we have done.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for tabling this subject for debate and I endorse his remarks about the late John Mackintosh.
This debate gives us an opportunity to turn our gaze from the subject which has been dominating politics recently. Until the Brexit proposals, the most important constitutional change in our history since the Reform Acts and electoral suffrage were the devolution proposals and their fulfilment. The first point I make is the comparison in the preparation and timescale of the two issues. EU exit proposals, a referendum, an election and the triggering of Article 50 without a plan have barely taken three years. No plan B or C, and probably no plan A either.
Devolution took much longer. The catalyst was Harold Wilson’s royal commission in 1968. Ideas were maturing by the 1974 election and, when I became the Welsh Secretary, I was asked by the Prime Minister to bring forward my proposals. This was followed by the ill-fated legislation between 1974 and 1979, when I had the privilege of being one of the architects of Welsh devolution. The proposals were felled by a referendum and underlined the need for greater preparation and acceptance by the electorate. It is a lesson that we all learned.
Long before that, going back to my days as a graduate student in 1953, I had been mulling over the way forward for Wales. Some 18 years went by after the referendum, but it gave me immense pleasure as the Attorney-General to guide the Cabinet committee in 1997 on the legal implications of the legislation which substantially built on the work done in the 1970s. I am glad to have been at the coalface during both periods. Such is the degree of acceptance now that I do not know of anyone who would seriously try to put the clock back. That does not mean that the evolution of devolution has not been without its difficulties and, indeed, unintended consequences. Later Acts to further the process in Scotland and Wales prove this. As my noble friend’s Motion implies, looking at the UK as a whole, the problem that remains to be cracked is legislating for the sheer size of England compared with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I think that most people would agree that there is no appetite in England for such jurisdictions to be created.
I confess that I do not know the answer, but I have noted the piecemeal reforms being made in some of our cities. What I am conscious of is that the divergence between different parts of the United Kingdom could be the cause of strains and difficulties in the future. It has been said that royal commissions have fallen out of favour. I believe that the Royal Commission on the Constitution was the last. That royal commission was set up in order to find a way forward. It and its sub-committees were made up of eminent men and women of different persuasions and experience. Not surprisingly, there were many divergences in their conclusions. The only unanimity was on the need for reform. In our case in Wales, they offered a range of solutions in a series of minority conclusions. This was not catastrophic; it offered choices to politicians. The Cabinet, after many meetings and two or three all-day sessions in Chequers, proposed limited devolution for Wales.
It was not intellectually unsustainable, as one of my noble friends described it in this House many years later. It was the considered view of a Cabinet made up of the Prime Minister and a small number of Members who wanted devolution, but with a substantial number, differing at each meeting, who wanted nothing to do with it or were simply bored with it. All you have to do to find out what happened is to look at the diaries of my noble friend Lord Donoughue. As the years have rolled by, I have been an enthusiastic supporter of further progress.
The second point I wish to make is that there has been a learning curve, and a steep one at that. I am pleased about what has happened and the work that has been done. Devolution is fundamentally about giving power to people where they are and ensuring that they are able to diverge in their actions as they think fit. The Welsh Assembly has diverged and initiated actions in anticipating the dangers of plastic and in the presumption of organ donation. I surmise that the same has happened in Scotland. Others may follow in devolution practices in health and education.
Some years ago I gave the annual political lecture in Aberystwyth where I suggested that since our devolved Governments had been in existence for more than 10 years, there was a case for inquiring how effective the devolved Government had been in each political field which had been devolved. I proposed an inquiry to be set up by each Government and assisted by eminent people.
Thirdly, are there any dangers in divergence? For example, welfare payments, university fees and free prescriptions go to the heart of people’s needs but since the public purse, short of local taxation powers, is at Westminster and divergence can cause dissatisfaction—indeed envy—elsewhere, is there a limit to divergence? A constitutional commission—I would prefer to call it a royal commission—which has served us well in the past could look at what we have achieved and propose a way forward.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue. As a member of the APPG on the constitution, I also welcome the chance to contribute to the report of the inquiry into better devolution for the whole UK chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake.
As a former leader of Bristol City Council, I want to focus on devolution at a local level, particularly in England. We see devolution as the transfer of power and funding from national to local institutions, meaning that decisions are made closer to the local people, communities and businesses that they affect. Governments have been slow to recognise the frustration suffered at a local level. Powers and funding are controlled by central government and the local authorities that people vote for are seen as little more than a means of delivering government policy at a local level.
Anyone who has knocked on doors in elections knows that the major issues raised are not decided at a local level. Investment in housing, transport, jobs and social care is not determined locally; it is controlled by the far-reaching grasp of the Treasury. French local government raises three times more of its own finance locally than English local government; in Sweden, it is 12 times as much. As we have heard, 9% of local government income in England is raised locally.
There is huge potential to increase economic growth through local devolution. We have heard today about HS2, the failure to invest in the regeneration of Liverpool and other northern cities and the shortage of investment in transport across and between the northern cities. Myriad reports from different sources—such as the City Growth Commission, the London Finance Commission and the non-metropolitan commission, which produced the Devolution to Non-Metropolitan England report—testified and have examined evidence to show how much can be achieved by giving more powers to local government. The issue of whether that happens at a regional level, for example through metro mayors, needs to be looked at by a constitutional convention.
The Government’s response of creating combined authorities and elected mayors has improved circumstances in some cases, but compared with many international cities that raise their own long-term finance, the level of powers devolved to English cities is derisory. In a quote in the London Finance Commission report, the Mayor of London said that when he explains to the mayor of New York or Berlin that he must go, cap in hand, to the Government to seek funding for major infrastructure improvements, they are incredulous. When I was a city leader working with core cities in Europe, there was incredulity at the minimal powers that city leaders and mayors in this country have.
More devolution has been given to metro mayors but it is controlled by a web of government lawyers and civils servants. The restraints are time-consuming and extremely frustrating. As the APPG report I referred to says, devolution is not just about economic benefits. Professor Vernon Bogdanor states:
“The fundamental case for devolution is the stimulus it gives to local patriotism and pride in the development of services, a patriotism and pride which can well stimulate improvement in services”,
as well as much better public satisfaction. The possibility of a constitutional convention could be a means of enabling central government to listen and act upon the aspirations of people in the cities and regions of our country, but it would have to be backed by resources and a commitment to real change if that is what people want. Any new constitutional settlement must start from the grass roots. A rolling programme of consultation could go some way to answering the anger and frustration we are seeing increasingly across the country. The problems are particular to different areas. The cost of living in London is unaffordable for so many people, yet jobs and investment growth are concentrated in the south-east. There are huge differences in income and the quality of services across the country.
If a new settlement is to be achieved it must be based on a contract with the people of this country, not determined centrally by Whitehall. It also has to be based on a real commitment to give power. If we are really to have devolved democracy across our country we must make sure that it is firmly rooted in the needs and circumstances of the people in the regions, cities and counties of this country. Any new settlement must be transparent so that people and groups can and will participate and, better still, hold it accountable. It also must have real powers, including fiscal devolution, that enable real investment and economic development. Without these it will continue to be no more than an outpost of central government.
My Lords, I strongly support the Motion and the concept behind it. We cannot go on in this country, particularly in a post-Brexit situation, without doing more to bring together all parts of the United Kingdom. Postponing this issue is one of our most serious and grave errors. I also believe that the noble Lord has made the most realistic proposition. It will not be done by this Government. Therefore, it is much more sensible for all those other parties in another place to come together now and start to have a mechanism for building a great deal more trust. Of course it will be difficult because of differences between the Labour Party and the SNP in particular. Nevertheless, the most likely next Government of this country will be another one composed of more than one party. Those parties that aspire to come together had better start learning to talk to each other.
The problem is the asymmetry of the United Kingdom. It is very hard to deal with it. The population of England accounts for 84% of the UK’s population. Scotland accounts for 8%. The population of Wales is 5% and the population of Northern Ireland 3%. Therefore, we have to look at the UK as a whole and recognise this. It is a great tribute to the Conservative Party that it has started on a serious pattern of devolution for England. I welcome that.
I used to believe that it was possible to reform this place to elect it and make it a federal Chamber. The reality is that will never happen. It is not legitimate and most of us in our hearts know that a Chamber that purports to legislate has to be totally rooted in elections. This Chamber will go. I was looking back at some of Winston Churchill’s speeches when he was a Liberal in 1905, going onwards for four or five years, and the vehemence with which he said that this place had to be abolished. Unfortunately that has been dissipated by time, but it will be abolished. In the meantime, we will need to build federal structures.
I think it is important to take a completely different way over this and look at this federal mechanism as allowing elected Members at Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont, as well as devolved and decentralised government structures in England, to participate in a UK federal council. It is a very different and potentially more acceptable form of federal governance. It would involve a devolved London Assembly and the eight big cities emerging now with devolved powers in England. For the rest of the UK, it would have to rely on separate representation for county and borough councils and unitary authorities in England. These already have their mechanism for concerting their views.
It seems to me that we should be humble enough in this country to look at the one structure that actually works. It is not very far away; it is the Bundesrat in Germany and it had a lot of help from constitutional experts in this country in the aftermath of the Second World War, trying to help the German people devise a new constitution. Look at their problem: they faced the problem of asymmetry in the Bundesrat. Baden-Württemberg has a population of more than 10 million; Bavaria, more than 12 million; Berlin, 3,395,000; and then there are smaller Länder such as Bremen, with 663,000 people. This is a structure that has come together; it deals with the issue of asymmetry and the problem of elections, but they come to it from the Länder, so they were not creating another body to be elected. The House of Commons will not let this happen. Those of us in this place who have been in the House of Commons know perfectly well that they speak with forked tongues: they advocate elections for a second Chamber but they are never going to do it, because they know, quite rightly, that there will be a constitutional clash as soon as we have this.
We have to accept it, we reformers who thought we could live with this situation: it is not going to happen, there will not be an elected second Chamber. Eventually, this Chamber will be abolished and before that, slowly, we will build up a structure that creates a federal UK, and the sooner the better. Instead of waiting for the Government, I wrote to the Prime Minister as soon as she took office and asked her what she would do about this, and, basically, the answer was negative. This Government have enough on their plate. They are not going to do anything if they survive until the year 2022, when we will have a fixed-term election. In the meantime, the opposition parties should start a process of dialogue and discussion and I hope very much that it is along the lines of this. If any noble Lord wants to see the much more detailed proposals that I have put forward on this, I would be very happy to send them details of a federal UK council.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Owen, who has very interesting ideas.
In 1978 I was the treasurer of the Labour “No Assembly” campaign in Wales. Over 20 years I changed my mind on devolution—which was fortunate, otherwise my future jobs as Secretary of State for Wales and for Northern Ireland would have been very uncomfortable. I did so because the people of Wales, Scotland and indeed Northern Ireland accepted that devolution was here to stay and was part of the political landscape. Things settled down. Now, of course, we are dominated as a country and a Parliament by Brexit—and Brexit will, of course, affect devolution. It will affect the powers and funding of our Assemblies and Governments. European funding, particularly for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is remarkably high and the Government have to give a promise, eventually, that if or when we leave the European Union, that level of funding will be maintained. It is there, of course, because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are generally poorer places than parts of England.
The other issue which is so relevant is that over the last week the whole of our politics has been dominated by Northern Ireland, the issue of the backstop and Brexit. The idea that, suddenly, Northern Ireland has to be taken notice of has become pivotal in the debates over the last 24 or 48 hours. The sooner the Government get down to ensuring that the institutions in Northern Ireland are restored, the more significant that will be in dealing with the Brexit issue. The failure of the negotiations over Northern Ireland has led to the failure of the negotiations over the European Union. There is a huge job to be done on that. Of course, 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union; Scotland did so by a bigger majority; unfortunately, Wales did not. But these are very important issues.
If we do get Brexit, and even if we do not, there are still issues that the Government have to address regarding the present devolution settlement. Joint ministerial committees must be used a lot more. Over the last year or so they have been resurrected and have proved partially successful, but more has to be done. There has to be a greater awareness in Whitehall departments—among Ministers and civil servants—of the existence of devolution. Certainly, in the 20 years that I was involved in ministerial life, devolution was very often totally ignored by United Kingdom government departments—“Devolve and forget”, the phrase has been. Well, they cannot and they have to ensure that that is part of the political landscape as well.
My noble and learned friend Lord Morris has often talked about whether the territorial Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland should continue. They certainly should as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, until we resolve the issue there. But there may be a case, as time goes by, for there to be a single constitutional Secretary of State, with Ministers of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and, indeed, England—around the Cabinet table, with non-voting rights, to ensure that we still have that link but there is an overarching Cabinet Minister as well.
The problem is England—it always was; it always will be. It is too big. Compare the 11 million people in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with the huge numbers in England. How do you deal with that issue? As has been said, there has been piecemeal development in England. We have a Mayor of London—the only truly devolved part of England—and mayors in Manchester and elsewhere. We have the northern powerhouse. None of it is the same as the proper devolved administration system in the rest of the United Kingdom. The answer is certainly not so-called English votes for English laws. That has been, is and will be a disaster. It divides Members of Parliament from each other. In this House, it does not matter where you come from—Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or England—your vote is the same as everybody else’s. That is no longer the case in the House of Commons. No other European country has that system, and the sooner it goes, the better.
It is a problem but we can have asymmetric devolution—of course we can. Germany has it, Spain has it; other countries have it. There is no reason in this wide world why we cannot have different forms of devolution to suit the nations and regions of our country. In so doing, I believe, we will see not only a healthier and more wholesome politics but a type of politics that will have to react to whatever happens after we have dealt with devolution.
I remind your Lordships that to ignore what happens in the devolved nations of our country—over the past 24 hours, such ignorance would have been obvious to people outside. The devolution of powers in our country is absolutely necessary to ensure that democracy thrives and that we have a uniform system, even though it is asymmetrical, throughout the United Kingdom, so that we have decentralisation of our powers and a proper democracy in our country.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, on his speech and the Motion he has tabled. He has been fortunate to find time for it. I thank him most sincerely for his extremely kind remarks about me. They are greatly appreciated.
It has been noticeable with the relatively new practice of valedictory speeches that they are often attached to debates that have nothing whatever to do with them, but that is certainly not so in this case. I am here because of the significant constitutional change whereby it was decided that Members of the House of Lords could retire—after centuries and centuries when that was not so. I therefore find myself here today, having reached the conclusion that I ought to retire.
I should make it clear why. I am absolutely convinced, as many others have been, that the House of Lords is too large. The Lord Speaker has initiated a series of actions, including the reports from the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on how it can be reduced and that programme of reduction is now proceeding through various people retiring or by natural causes and so on. I have come to the conclusion that since I have always believed that one’s vote should follow one’s voice and that, if possible, actions should follow one’s vote, I should take action as part of the campaign that has been initiated to reduce the size of the House. That is my only reason for retiring, but I should also say that it would be quite absurd if existing Members decided that they should retire, for the reasons I have given, and we then find the numbers creeping up again. The crucial outstanding point in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is that once we have reduced the size there should be a cap on that size, regardless of complications with regard to the royal prerogative.
I was first elected to the House of Commons as the Member for Worthing on
I served in the Commons from 1964 to 1997— 33 years—and then in your Lordships’ House from 1997 until now, which is 21 years. That is a total of some 54 years and one naturally looks back at some events in that period. One that stands out is the problem with Rhodesia, over which I had some difference of opinion with my constituents culminating in a public meeting of 1,200 people. I do not think that kind of thing happens nowadays but, at all events, that was one problem. Another problem was with the Ugandan Asians. I was in government at that time and we had serious trouble with Mr Idi Amin. Various solutions were proposed, such as that we might have a better relationship with him if we made him a field-marshal in the British Army. That solution was rejected but Ted Heath set up a very small Cabinet committee consisting of Robert Carr, as Home Secretary, Paul Bryan and me to make recommendations. We came out by saying very strongly that the refugees from the crisis in that country should be admitted to this country. That has had considerable economic benefit to this country and it is something of which I am rather proud.
I made my maiden speech in the other place on the plight of old age non-pensioners who had been left out of the original scheme, but nothing happened until I arrived in the Treasury, when I was able to rectify that injustice and make sure that at least they got that part of the pension not been covered by national insurance contributions.
Many things in political life are transitory, so one inevitably thinks about what one has done which might pass the test of time. I notice three in particular. One is decimalisation. I was put in charge of it on arrival in the Treasury in 1970. Ian Macleod had advocated a 10 bob unit. Jim Callaghan had argued for a pound unit, on the grounds of the international prestige of the pound, but a few weeks later he devalued the pound, which rather undermined his argument, and I was left with the problem when I arrived at the Treasury. We went ahead with the situation that we inherited and I think, on the whole, it has worked pretty well. Indeed, although the latest coin is very attractive compared with the ones I introduced, the situation has been resolved quite satisfactorily.
More important was the huge taxation reform I brought in with Ian Macleod by abolishing purchase tax and selective employment tax and replacing them with VAT. That has certainly stood the test of time. The basic rate is now double, or rather more, what it was when I introduced it. We went for a single positive rate with zero rating for essential items so that the tax would not be regressive. The problem with that was that, as I carried the reform through the House of Commons, endless amendments went down stating that this or that item should be zero rated, but we survived that, with one exception—children’s clothes and shoes. I see that some Members opposite remember that. An amendment had been put down by one of my colleagues to zero-rate it and I stood up to make my usual speech saying that it was a universal, wide-ranging scheme and so on, and then I received a note from the Whip saying, “Do you realise that everyone on this side is at the Royal Garden Party?”, so I succeeded in announcing that there would be a special inquiry into this item, and as a result children’s shoes and clothes are zero rated, which they would not have been before.
I am conscious of the time. In the Lords I went straight on to the Front Bench when I left the Commons and served there for a period in opposition against Lady Hollis of Heigham, whom we all greatly miss as she recently left us. It is a huge advantage in opposition to have someone against you who knows all about the subject. Indeed, she knew more about the subject than anyone else in the world. It was a very enjoyable period in my political life. I sat on a number of committees, including the Committee on the Speakership, the Committee on the Conventions on the Relationship between the two Houses of Parliament and various other ad hoc committees, which I enjoyed. I have been particularly engaged with the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which was initiated by my noble friend Lord Cormack and supported by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, both of whom are in their place. I think we are very grateful for the work which that all-party committee has done, which has certainly improved the constitutional changes that have been made. I hope there will be further constitutional changes in future.
I think it is true to say that your Lordships’ House is probably more effective now than it has been at any time in its history. It is making an outstanding contribution, it has taken on a great deal of the legislative burden from the other place—which I do not think is fully appreciated—and, generally speaking, it operates extremely well. It is an extraordinary place. The mass of expertise and experience that your Lordships devote to business of the House is very important. It is also a quite extraordinarily friendly place, which I have greatly appreciated.
In conclusion, I thank very much all the staff of the House—the badge messengers, the staff in the catering department and so on. If I may, I will say how grateful I am for the support I have received throughout from my wife and family. That is very important; one cannot do a good job here or in the Commons without it. I thank noble Lords for the kind remarks that I have received, and I appreciate very much the opportunity to say this today.
My Lords, it is an honour tinged with much sadness for me to follow the noble Lord’s valedictory speech. He was heard today, as he has been throughout his years in Parliament, with interest, respect and affection. He has been valued in both Houses of Parliament for his good sense, his expertise, his courtesy and his evident passion for the good of the country. I have known the noble Lord since 1983 and I have always been in some awe of him. He was an Olympic athlete, a sprinter, but in politics he has been noted not only for his speed but for his stamina. As he told your Lordships, he represented and served his constituents in Worthing in the House of Commons for 33 years.
Then the noble Lord came to your Lordships’ House and, as he mentioned, for part of his period in this House he took the opposition brief for work and pensions. I was very touched by what he said about my noble friend Baroness Hollis. I know that she relished such a worthy opponent across the Dispatch Box, how highly she rated him and how fond she was of him.
It has been my good fortune for the 13 years past to share an office with the noble Lord. He has been a kind friend and a wise counsellor to me during that time, and he takes no responsibility for the occasional extravagance of my views. I have noticed that he has experienced, as I have, some bafflement with the parliamentary IT system. I hope it is not the arrival of the new telephones that has finally driven him out. I imagine that he is really retiring for the natural and proper reason that at his age he wants to spend more time playing golf. Whatever the reason why he has chosen to retire, we wish him well and hope that he will still come and see us often.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes has said, constitutional challenges abound. He said that this was not to be a debate on Brexit, but Brexit is a giant constitutional issue. He would have his constitutional convention address issues of democratic accountability, but we Brexiters seek to escape the democratic deficit of the EU. My noble friend really should not be such an ardent remainer; I think he should reconsider his position and perhaps see the virtues of leaving after all.
In the process of leaving, facilitated—though that hardly seems the right word—by a referendum, we have seen the nations of the UK split asunder and we are seeing Parliament floundering as it seeks to acquit itself of its responsibilities, floundering perhaps particularly because there is a conflict between two democratic principles: the principle of direct democracy, as expressed in the referendum; and the principle of indirect democracy, which is the customary mode in our parliamentary government.
That is one colossal issue, but other great issues arise out of the disproportionate centralisation of power and economic strength in London. We have had the development of the move for Scottish independence and, as my noble friend described, the uncertain and fitful progress of devolution in England. Even more important is the atrophying of local government, which has long seemed a profoundly important problem because, unless we have vigorous local government, our democratic culture withers at its roots.
We see the crisis of our justice system brought about by wanton austerity. I also consider to be a constitutional issue the mismatch between the needs of the media and the needs of our democracy, the trivialisation of public debate, the decline of the local press and the disintegration and—arguably—subversion of our political culture by social media. These are hugely important and hugely difficult issues. Is the right way to address them by means of a UK-wide constitutional convention?
If it were to be a convention of academics and think tanks, perhaps with the participation of Select Committees in both Houses, that would be very valuable. They would articulate the issues and help to educate the politicians who have to take decisions.
The convention as proposed is really a variant of a royal commission. Of course, there was the Kilbrandon commission, which sat for four years between 1969 and 1973. It produced 16 volumes of evidence and 10 research papers. I read an article in the Liverpool Law Review of October 2017, which stated:
“Largely forgotten is the work of the Kilbrandon Commission, established to consider the allocation of executive and legislative power within the UK”.
I am not persuaded that a convention would necessarily be an improvement on a royal commission, and it is my hope that the Labour Party would not repeat its manifesto pledge to set up such a convention. It would be unwise for any Government to commit themselves to a blueprint for wholesale constitutional reform. The clever and enthusiastic members of the convention would certainly get it wrong. They would be unable to foresee the developments that lay ahead.
My noble friend takes the Scottish convention as an encouraging precedent, and undoubtedly it did useful work. It is a good thing that we have a Scottish Parliament but, as his national poet wrote, the best-laid plans “Gang aft agley”. It was forecast by an eminent Labour politician that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead, but nationalism is a long time petrifying. It was not supposed to work out like this, but the SNP secured a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The independence referendum took place in 2014, generating bitter emotions, and the possibility of a second independence referendum hangs like a sword of Damocles over Scottish politics and the union.
If it was difficult in Scotland, a small country where everybody knows everybody else and where the issues are relatively contained, how much more difficult would it be to get it right if we held a constitutional convention on a UK-wide basis? The scale and the complexity of the problems would be impossible to wrestle with.
Another fear that I have is that it would be almost inevitable that such a convention would propose a written constitution. If you have had a revolution or devastation by total war, it makes sense to start again in year zero, as it were. But I devoutly hope that that is not our case, and we see that written constitutions do not always produce the satisfaction that their authors hope. The European Union was ambitious to have a written constitution, but that was turned down by referendums in France and the Netherlands. None the less, a written constitution was sneaked back in in the treaty of Lisbon. I see no evidence that the existence of a written quasi-constitution has better enabled the European Union to address itself to the great intractable problems of immigration or the malfunctioning of the euro.
In this matter, I am a Burkeian. I believe that constitutional change should be organic. That wise Whig, Lord Holland, when asked by the Neapolitan revolutionaries whether he would be so good as to equip them with a draft constitution, responded, “You might as well ask me to build you a tree”. The way to approach constitutional change is incremental, by reform that is responsive to political events and pressures and that moves forward selectively and is expedient. We should develop our constitution by building on centuries of experience, by testing ideas and the structures of power, and by taking account of changes in public engagement, the varying perceptions of people across the country and their developing aspirations. Cumulatively, we should gain consent.
Preoccupation with constitutional reform is a displacement activity. Re-engineering the constitution is no substitute for good government, in which political leaders address the problems that people really care about and which produces shared prosperity and optimism about the future of the country.
I will talk about the north of England. It is the second region of England after London and the south-east together, and has 15 million people—three times as many as Scotland and five times as many as Wales. It is a region that shares considerable cultural, economic and social cohesion and history, and many current problems. I speak about the north as a whole because the north should stand together as a whole.
What we have had so far is asymmetric devolution. Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales have become increasingly fairly fully functioning units of a federal system, except there is no federal system for them to be the units of. This is not a system that is sustainable in the long run. We still have a highly centralised state, not least in England, with a number of peripheral anomalies. If I call Wales and Scotland peripheral anomalies, I do so with great admiration that they have been able to break free from the grip of London to the extent that they have. Then we have gimmicks such as EVEL.
We have people who believe that the answer is a fully federal system with an English Parliament, but the result of that would be the complete detachment of Scotland and Wales in due course and it would do nothing to change the concentration of economic and political power within England. We have had a series of feeble initiatives. There was the rather pathetic attempt of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, when he was in the other place, to have a north-east England assembly with no powers, which was rightly rejected. In Labour’s regional offices, civil servants from different parts sat in the same building, usually on different floors, and talked to their bosses in London rather than to each other. There was the coalition’s regional growth fund and its local enterprise partnerships—nobody has really noticed that they exist.
The north of England is being fragmented into city regions in the name of devolution, but it is not devolution: it is almost entirely the reorganisation of local government. It is the concentration of power within local government, with all power going to the big cities, but what is that except the power for those involved to carry begging bowls on the train to Whitehall and Westminster and, if they are lucky, to go home with their railway fares? In so far as power is being concentrated in big cities through city regions and mayors, the people who suffer in the north of England are those in the areas on the edges and the places in between and particularly towns, which have lost so much of their civic culture, power and society in recent years.
However, we are getting a greater recognition of the north of England as a region in its own right, not fragmented into three or four different regions, but as a unit. We also have the northern powerhouse. It was a slogan invented by George Osborne when he was Chancellor, but it has resulted in meetings, conferences, projects and all sorts of things. It has resulted in the relabelling as northern powerhouse projects of projects that would have been happening anyway, but it might have some value in the recognition it has encouraged of the north of England.
Transport for the North is far more important. Here is a devolved transport body which has real powers. It still has to go with a begging bowl to London for pretty well everything but, nevertheless, it is a body with powers, it covers the north of England, and transport is perhaps the place to start. Network Rail and NHS England both have a director for the north; we have the Northern Housing Consortium; the IPPR has set up IPPR North, a dedicated think tank for the north of England; the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has meetings and, no doubt, lots of pleasant dinners; and we are told there is Northern Powerhouse Rail, whatever that turns out to be in the long run. The Mayor of Liverpool has said he is fed up with it all because there is no power: these groups put forward good proposals to London for why things should be set up and funded, and London says, “Well, you can have a bit of it”. It is not very satisfactory. He says the Northern Powerhouse Partnership was,
“set up by a Government which isn’t prepared to listen”.
The begging-bowl mentality continues.
I believe the future lies in devolution to the north of England, with a body which, in an asymmetric system—inevitably, as the legal and other systems are different—can stand alongside Wales, Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland, if it can ever get its act together again. The proposal for a UK convention, or even an English convention, is worth while, but what is needed before any national convention can take place is a convention of people in the north of England. It is time for those of us in the north of England to get together, sit together across the whole of the north of England, and work out the options for what we would like. This should be discussed by the people of the north of England; we would then come to a national convention and say, “This is what we want”. That is what Scotland did; it is what the north of England has to do. It requires a considerable change of attitude, not just by central Government but by people across the north.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for a remarkable parliamentary career. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I should reveal that, nearly 50 years ago, he was chair of the National League of Young Liberals and I was one of his very independently minded national officers, whom he had to control, mostly unsuccessfully—
That is what I meant, my Lords. I believe that, without wide-ranging constitutional reform, the very future of the United Kingdom is imperilled, not least by the strong possibility of Brexit triggering Scottish secession, and even Northern Irish secession through a referendum provided for under the Good Friday agreement.
One way to address this is through the new Act of Union Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, printed on
Until now, the main pressure for reform has come from Labour, Liberals, Greens and radical constitutionalists. But the CRG was initiated by leading Conservatives and is chaired by the noble Marquess of Salisbury, the former Conservative Leader of your Lordships’ House. Also on the steering committee is the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, former Clerk of the Commons, former parliamentary counsel Daniel Greenberg, Paul Silk, former Clerk to the Welsh Assembly and before that himself a Commons clerk, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, representing the Liberal Democrats. Joined by me from Labour on the steering committee is Lisa Nandy MP, who is doing some very interesting work on towns and their alienation, both economic and political, in our current culture.
We have identified important areas for reform and have suggested different options. These include addressing the asymmetrical devolution that has left England with an understandable grievance—not just on the political right—as the most centralised and therefore disenfranchised part of the UK, London excepted. As has been said, the introduction of English votes for English laws procedures in the House of Commons is an unsatisfactory symptom of this.
I believe that England outside London should have a permissive form of devolution, enabling regional government or city regional government to evolve as desired. Given the opportunity, Cornwall and the north-east would almost certainly go for regional government right now, to be followed perhaps by others, maybe with Yorkshire leading the way. However, crucially, these bodies must have real power, not the Mickey Mouse powers offered in 2004, which were defeated in the north-east referendum in which I campaigned.
On the House of Lords, some on the steering committee suggest that it should be abolished and replaced by an elected English Parliament. However, representing 85% of the population, it would be so dominant that it would effectively replace the Commons as the fulcrum of Parliament, sidelining Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland even more and thereby promoting separatism. My own view is that a senate or House of Lords should be majority-elected on the same day as a general election, ideally by a list system of proportional representation on the same boundaries as apply to European elections. That would enable each of the nations and regions within the United Kingdom to be properly represented, helping bind us back together again in a way that both Houses of Parliament have palpably failed to do.
However, a new settlement must not be drawn up—still less imposed—from on high. There must be wide consultation, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes has argued, through a constitutional convention similar to the one that successfully preceded devolution in Scotland.
It is not simply Scottish antipathy, Northern Irish instability or English discontent that threaten the future of the United Kingdom; there is now a widespread sentiment across the great majority of our citizens that our democratic system no longer represents their interests.
The Act of Union Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, addresses the main issues at stake, from finance to security. Crucially, it proposes a bottom-up rather than the top-down arrangement that we have had until now. It turns the devolution settlement on its head by creating a new federal structure in which the constituent parts or nations voluntarily vest the sovereignty they choose at the centre—for example, for foreign, defence and security, taxation and pensions matters. Otherwise, every policy area remains with them.
Our society today is hugely polarised by bitter Brexit divisions, towns left behind as metropolitan cities forge ahead, never-ending austerity and widening inequality. The new Act of Union Bill does not and cannot address all the issues breeding these serious divisions, but it is an important start, because the bell is otherwise tolling for the United Kingdom as it is now.
My Lords, in the autumn of 1987, while spending a very cold and damp day in Stirling at the annual conference of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, I could never have imagined that 15 years later I might be First Minister of Scotland, partly because the prospect of a Scottish Parliament seemed so far away. A small group of members of the campaign were asked by the then chair of the assembly campaign, the late Jim Boyack, to convene in a bar after the conference to discuss a new idea that he had for a commission to look at the way ahead in building greater unity and a sense of purpose on the campaign for a Scottish Parliament. Shortly after that small group met and discussed the idea that day in Stirling, Sir Robert Grieve was commissioned to chair a commission to look at the drafting and the agreement of a claim of right of sovereignty for Scotland. Several months later, after much discussion and debate, Sir Robert Grieve produced his report outlining that claim of right—the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to choose their form of government—and the demand that we find a way of taking forward what was then clearly the settled will of the Scottish people and giving it greater clarity and momentum towards achieving that eventual goal.
To his great credit, the late Donald Dewar later that year accepted the idea, launched the constitutional convention and put Labour at the centre of it—contrary to many of the ways in which the party had operated for decades before—working with other parties to develop the scheme and the consensus. As leader of my local authority, Stirling District Council, I was a member of the convention from 1989, when it first met, to 1992. I was then a member of the executive committee of the convention between 1992 and 1998, when we finalised the scheme and set about turning it into a reality in the 1997 referendum. That convention had many strengths, and I will highlight three in this debate.
The first is that the convention had democratic legitimacy. It was not a collection of interested individuals, a gathering of civic Scotland or a campaign. There were one or two observers, but the full members of the convention were either Members of Parliament or leaders of local authorities. Those were the people who signed the claim of right and made the decisions. That gave the convention democratic legitimacy.
The second thing is that the convention had a sense of purpose. It was pulled together, through the signing of the claim of right, to design a scheme and to try to turn it into reality. The clarity of that sense of purpose was very important to its eventual success.
The third thing—this is critical for this debate in your Lordships’ House—is that the convention reflected the settled will of the people of Scotland. The discussions in 1987, 1988 and 1989 resulted from a 1987 election in which the settled and expressed democratic will of the people of Scotland—for example, on the poll tax or community charge—was so radically ignored by the Government of the day here in Westminster. That challenge to the legitimacy of Westminster to govern in Scotland required a solution, and the convention helped provide that. The settled will was for a democratically elected Parliament in Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.
So I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes not just for initiating this debate here but for the work he has done on this issue over many years and his relentless campaigning over many decades to improve the governance of this country. I also welcome the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who has campaigned long and hard for a convocation, as an alternative to a convention. While I absolutely agree with Members of your Lordships’ House who have expressed concern about the current state of governance in the United Kingdom, I think we should be cautious on this proposal and ensure that whatever steps we take are effective. There is no doubt that one of the many missed opportunity of Brexit over the last three years has been the absence of the initiation of a debate on what returning sovereignty to the United Kingdom might mean for improving the governance of the United Kingdom. That opportunity is perhaps now gone, but it does not mean we do not rise to the challenge.
Your Lordships’ Chamber cannot exist for many more years. We need to find an alternative solution that is better representative and reflective of our country. But we also need, 20 years on, to look at the relationship between the devolved Administrations, Governments and Parliaments and Whitehall, Westminster and the UK Government. In my view, it is ridiculous that we still have territorial Secretaries of State. They should have gone when Tony Blair first proposed that in 2003, but 15 years on we still have them sitting around the Cabinet table. It is a dysfunctional system that needs to go. We need to ensure that a whole number of other changes take place as well, and it has been rightly raised that local government has been messed around with by Governments of all parties over the years and has never had a proper, concrete, long-term solution that enhances our democracy or the provision of services.
If we are going to bring people together, either in a democratically legitimate convention that is representative, authoritative and purposeful or a convocation that might be a more open-ended discussion, we need to be clear about the purpose of that body, why it has been established, who its members will be and what the outcome might or might not be. If we do that, perhaps over the next 20 years we can take steps towards sorting out some of the problems in UK governance that were at least partly solved in Scotland 20 years ago next year.
My Lords, I am sorry that I cannot agree with everything the noble Lord said, although he did make some extremely pertinent and very important points. Not for the first time, I am grateful to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who has been friend, colleague, sparring partner and sometimes fellow campaigner both in the other place and this one. I did not know about this debate until yesterday. I came out of hospital to lead a debate last night on the Royal Academy—a totally uncontroversial subject—and, sitting next to my noble friend Lord Higgins earlier in the day, I learned of this debate and that he was going to make his valedictory speech. That is why I put my name down. I went through a slight wobble this morning and am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, for allowing me to come back in to the debate after I had scratched.
Listening to my noble friend Lord Higgins, I felt that I must say how much I have valued his wise counsel and long friendship since 1970, when I entered the other place as a new and very raw MP. I owe a great deal to my noble friend, who began his public life as a spectacular sprinter but has become the long-distance runner of British politics. He has been an invaluable Member of both Houses of Parliament. In the Commons, one always looked to him for sound sagacity. He was absolutely dedicated to the parliamentary ideal and—we did slightly conspire together, although we were not successful—would have made a wonderful Speaker of the other place. He has been a very successful Member of your Lordships’ House, on both the Front and Back Benches. I am grateful for what he said about the campaign for an elected second Chamber, which many of your Lordships present are supporters of and which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I have attempted to steer for some 18 years now. Among the most regular attenders and those who have made a real contribution are the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who spoke so movingly about my noble friend Lord Higgins, the late Lord Howe of Aberavon and my noble friend Lord Higgins.
I believe we are debating an important subject today. I am more in favour of the convocation than the convention, but I believe it is crucial to engage public interest in the democratic process and democratic institutions. We see now, in the aftermath of a bitterly divisive referendum, widespread disillusionment with the parliamentary practice and process that has made our country what it is. If we are to keep faith with people such as my noble friend Lord Higgins, we have to latch on to that and do something about it.
I believe, as does my noble friend Lord Higgins, that there is a continuing place for this Chamber. But it is important that its size be reduced, and that we recognise that we are not as effective as we should be because of our size. However, an assembly of those who do not in any sense challenge the unambiguous democratic authority of the other place has a continuing role to play in our democratic process. Yes, it should be more representative of the country as a whole, and yes, its numbers should be contained, but I believe it has a real and continuing role.
Following this debate—although it will not be immediate—I would like to see an appointment of a royal commission, as advocated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. That should be followed by a convocation that takes evidence from around the country in a judicious and balanced way, always recognising the danger implicit in 85% of the population of the United Kingdom being in England, a point made splendidly by the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Such a convocation must take a long, balanced look at what our democracy should look like and what the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament should be as we move through the 21st century.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has done a service by bringing the subject before us today. My noble friend Lord Higgins has adorned the debate with his wit and wisdom in a way that will make it memorable. I hope it will also lead to something in the years ahead.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Foulkes for initiating this debate. For me, it is an honour to take part in a debate with so many experienced and knowledgeable contributors. One thing is certain: after the past few days, no one could argue that constitutional issues are dull. But unfortunately, if we took the idea of a constitutional convention to the wider world, it would probably be met with a large yawn.
If we are trying to persuade people to think about constitutional issues, it makes sense to start not with the structures but with how best the state can provide for its citizens, and, following on from that, the best means of delivery. Regardless of what parliamentarians and the national media may think, for many people the most important political institution is their local council. In our system, however, local government is treated as the least important. But if we genuinely believe in subsidiarity, and that power should reside at the closest level to the people affected by it, we need to turn that idea on its head.
Councils should not be at the mercy of the next tier of government for limits on their powers or funding. In Scotland, we see creeping centralisation within a devolved parliamentary system that is becoming increasingly centralised, diminishing the responsibilities of local authorities. To stop this, I argue that the role and powers of local government need to be regulated by the constitution. It is not sufficient to have political democracy; we should aspire also to economic democracy. Billions of pounds of local funding goes to the private sector, yet councils are restricted from using the procurement process to ensure that that money comes back into the local economy. They should have the powers to insist on local recruitment, payment of the real living wage, setting up apprenticeship schemes and using local businesses in their supply chain—or, if they choose to, to bring those projects in-house.
The second tier of government should bring local authority areas together in meaningful geographical combinations, where the needs of the different communities can be dealt with co-operatively and not competitively. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have structures that already enable this; but then there is the “English question”. Rather than the “strongman” metro mayors—and they are men—fighting each other for resources and investment, we need a fair distribution of resources based on need. All regions have within them areas of wealth and poverty, and the aim should be to equalise the life chances of everyone. I argue that this can be done through a system of regional assemblies exercising devolved powers. The third level of government would then have responsibility for external matters, such as cross-territorial regulations, trade deals, international relations, human rights issues, defence and macroeconomic decisions.
To ensure equalisation between the regions and nations, a simple three-level state with a bottom-up rather than top-down approach allows for common standards where needed but also for diversity within those common standards. I believe that we are looking at a federal arrangement, and this will require a constitution to match. By necessity, it would have to be a written constitution, to guarantee the rights of the different tiers.
We can all agree that our piecemeal approach to constitutional change has left us with inconsistencies and contradictions, which will be further exposed outside the EU. That brings an element of urgency to resolving the situation, in particular the cross-territorial issues that will arise. Personally, I do not think that intergovernmental committees are an acceptable approach. The devolved parliaments and assemblies, and those in the regions, should be involved through whatever mechanism, rather than replicating some of the ways the EU has dealt with matters—with a lack of transparency and accountability. I argue very strongly that there is an urgent need to bring together people from the regions, assemblies and parliaments, not just their Governments. hope this House agrees that, if we are to have a constitutional convention, it needs to be carried out quickly and in a focused way. It might not solve all the issues in one go but it could tackle those that are urgent. As my noble friend Lord Foulkes explained, the Scottish Constitutional Convention brought together political parties, trade unions, business representatives, the voluntary sector and local government. Such a convention would be a starting point to discuss the principles that should govern any new arrangement. Once we agree—as I hope we would—that we start with the principle of subsidiarity and then include accountability and transparency, we will have formed the groundwork for building a new constitution.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for securing this important and timely debate. I declare my interests as a trustee of a mental health service for children and adolescents, and as a trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation, a child welfare charity. For those of us working in that area, particularly, the system is not delivering geographically nor to the most vulnerable.
I do not refer to any particular Government. In our experience we have seen disjunction and discontinuity between successive Governments in areas such as housing policy and the development of apprenticeships. We have recognised these problems for many years but we have not got to grips with them. There is a lack of continuity in governance—a short democratic horizon—in this country. I hope that whatever facility is used to reflect on our constitution, and perhaps improve it, we will look across the world at the countries which seem to be doing best and learn from them.
My noble friend Lord Owen, who is in his place, referred to the Bundesrat and the German experience and practice. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Germany, with which I visited the Bundestag last spring. I was struck by the fact that Germany seems to have a successful, prosperous economy and a good, healthy social contract. In contrast to the housing concerns here—130,000 children living in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation this Christmas —in Germany, where they certainly have their issues, there is a more secure private sector and social housing set-up. In so many ways, one could see failures on our part where Germany has been successful.
A German journalist to whom I was speaking a while ago had visited Blackpool for a week to talk to families there. She said, “I am afraid it seems that your social contract is broken. In our country, Germany, it is more secure”. I hope that as part of this process we will look abroad and consider what has been successful.
In preparing for the visit to the Bundestag, I was struck by the continuities in German governance—in the leadership of Kohl and Merkel, and in the parties. Its multiparty system allows certain parties to continue through several Administrations so that there is continuity in fiscal policy and foreign policy, and that has benefited Germany. So I hope we will look at Germany and other nations when we consider this matter.
Turning to another important issue, there is a sense—I may have misunderstood this—that the membership of Parliament is becoming increasingly middle class and that the connection with people at the very bottom is being lost. I may be mistaken, but I wonder whether we can consider how to facilitate connecting Members of both Houses with the dispossessed.
We have an armed services facility to make it easy for Members to work in the Army, the Royal Navy and so on. We have the Industry and Parliament Trust to make it easy for Members of both Houses to get experience of industry. We do not have a social protection trust, which would make it easy for Members of both Houses to spend time with social workers and to live on a housing estate for a while. Clement Attlee—a middle-class/upper middle-class man and a barrister—went to live and work in Toynbee Hall as a youth worker. He got to know and have affection for young people living in poverty. It was a tremendous experience in his life.
There are various ways in which politicians who wish to can learn about how those at the nether end of society are living. Yesterday we heard from the head of security in both Houses of Parliament. He referred to a push system, a default position under which parliamentarians would be provided with information about security. What about some kind of push system to make it easy for parliamentarians to have that kind of experience?
Edward Timpson, who grew up with fostered and adopted brothers and sisters and used that experience in Parliament, told me that it was quite normal for parliamentarians to visit fire services and ambulance services, but quite rare for them to go out on calls with health visitors or to visit with social workers on the front line. If that became more normal, it might make a huge difference to the quality of policy and legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, emphasised what is at stake. In recent years we have not delivered as we might have done for the British people. I am reminded of a German 19th-century poem about a child and his father riding through a German forest. The child said, “My father, my father: I am being pursued by some terrible demon”. The father said, “No, no, you will be fine. You will be home in a minute”. The child keeps complaining and the father keeps saying, “No, no, it’s okay”. We cannot afford to be complacent. Our constitution has not been delivering for some time and I hope that the proposals brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will be enacted in one way or another.
My Lords, I strongly support the proposal of my noble friend Lord Foulkes for a constitutional convention. I am not instinctively in favour of royal commission-type arrangements. I tend to take the view of Harold Wilson that royal commissions take minutes and last years. However, on something as profound as major constitutional change—including the replacement of this House with a federal senate on the lines set out by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, of an equivalent to the Bundesrat, which I agree could be a model for the reform of this House and the wider reform of the United Kingdom—I do not think it will be possible to get to that kind of arrangement without a constitutional convention.
I pay tribute to my noble friend and the many others who made a success of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s. This, without doubt, paved the way for the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements and rescued us from the bitterly divisive and partisan state that the devolution debate had got into in the 1970s and 1980s. It created a consensus and, although it did not at the time include the Conservative Party, as my noble friend said, many Conservatives were sympathetic. Indeed, historically, the Conservative Party got to devolution in Scotland first with Alec Douglas-Home and his commission going back to the 1970s. It created a consensus which meant that the new Scottish Parliament arrangements bedded down quickly. So I am sympathetic to it.
I absolutely agree that the position of the Labour Party in opposition gives us a golden opportunity to take the lead while the Government obsess over Brexit. I believe that Brexit will no longer happen—that we will have a referendum and it will be ended. However, whether or not that is the case, we will have to move on to the reform of the constitution of the United Kingdom—not least because of the issues that Brexit has raised and which, to some extent, led to Brexit—because of the great sense of alienation in the Midlands and the north of England, which have not benefited from substantial devolution.
I wish to make two comments on the work of the convention and the form its proposals might take. My noble friend and others said that there has not been substantial devolution in England, but that is not true of London. The four great constitutional reforms affecting the United Kingdom which the Labour Government, of which we were proud to be members, carried through were the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement, the National Assembly of Wales, the Parliament of Scotland and, crucially, the establishment of the Mayor and the Assembly for London. In their own way, all four of those reforms have been successful—not least the creation of the Mayor and the Assembly for London. The test of any institution is: if it did not exist, would you recreate it? If your Lordships’ House did not exist, I am not sure that anyone would recreate it, but I am absolutely sure that if there was not a Mayor of London we would definitely seek to put one in place, together with accountability arrangements such as the Assembly. The other test of a machine is the work that it does. If one looks at what has been accomplished by the three Mayors of London since the office was established in 2000, it has been an outstanding success. I take a particular interest in infrastructure and I emphasise that the renovation of London’s transport infrastructure would not have taken place with anything like the degree of investment and efficiency if it was not for the Mayor of London.
Earlier at Question Time we debated the regrettable cost overruns of Crossrail. Crossrail will open and will represent a dramatic transformation of London’s public transport capacity, but it would not exist at all but for the Mayor of London. It is not just about the political authority of the mayor but also, crucially, the mayor’s tax-raising powers, including the ability to raise a supplementary business rate which two successive mayors, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, persuaded the London business community to sign up to because they were so desperate to have a credible scheme for improving London’s public transport capacity. The mayor put forward a plan for which he managed to gain consent from the Labour Government and then the subsequent coalition Government. There was a strong belief on the part of the London business community that the project would be delivered that led to it being advanced. The same is true of the congestion charge in London, which would not conceivably have happened without a mayor, and the doubling of the rate of investment in London’s public transport.
I have always adopted the Chinese adage that R&D stands for “rob and duplicate”. We need to see that when you have institutions that work well, the job of effective policymakers is to rob and duplicate them. What we now need is arrangements such as those that apply in London with the mayor and the Assembly in all the major metropolitan parts of England. It is starting to happen with the metro mayors, but they have nothing like the power or the resources of the Mayor of London. The task I strongly encourage the Government to undertake, because they are sympathetic to business and have taken steps forward with mayoralties outside London, is to significantly enhance those mayors’ powers, including tax-raising powers, and their accountability arrangements. That can and should happen now. It should be a key part of what is happening in this thing called the northern powerhouse, which at the moment is largely vacuous. If that happened, it would provide the building blocks for the establishment of a federal second Chamber based in England on the major cities and city regions. You would then need to bring counties together with similar arrangements in those parts of England not covered.
I strongly welcome what my noble friend said. I note that there is a broad consensus across the House in support of his recommendations. It is not total because we have constitutional conservatives who essentially do not like any change and provide elegant reasons for why no change should happen, but the consensus seems to extend to most parts of the House and we need to build on that.
In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Owen, cited Churchill’s once radical views on reform of the House of Lords, which he described as,
“one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, irresponsible, absentee”— he was never given to understatement. He also said that to abuse the Government was,
“an inalienable right of every British citizen”.
That is certainly true, but we hold the Minister in very great esteem and we do not abuse him. We look forward to his constructive response to my noble friend’s proposal.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on bringing forward this debate. It is obviously very timely and we all have strong opinions about it. It feels slightly odd to be following the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I have a slight grudge against him because he is one of only two politicians to have blocked me on Twitter, the other being Donald Trump, the President of the United States.
My Lords, I would willingly unblock the noble Baroness. It must have been some particularly insulting remark she made in respect of me, but I am sure she regrets it and I regret blocking her.
I am afraid that I cannot promise not to be insulting again; that is how Twitter works.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, was absolutely fascinating about all the issues that he has worked on. It means that I now know where to go with any complaints on those matters, so I hope that he will not be leaving us too soon.
At the moment we are in the awful throes of what to do about Brexit. Whether or not we leave the European Union, we have to grapple with something that other noble Lords have touched on: how to heal the divisions within our deeply divided country. Anger, frustration and mistrust is endemic in parts of society. We need a complete overhaul of the so-called British constitution, which could begin with a constitutional convention.
Many people were surprised and confused when proceedings in the other place on Monday night came to a halt because someone had picked up the Mace. A lot of foreigners were expressing their confusion on Twitter and wanted to know why it mattered. The explanation illustrates an incredibly important point, which is that the Mace represents the authority of the monarch. Parliament sits only under the authority of the monarch and when the Mace is removed, Parliament has no authority. I was deeply saddened to disagree so strongly with my friend the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. He, I and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, have a little leaver block-sympathy going on on this side of the House, so I was sad to disagree with him. I do so because the British constitution is not a democracy in any sense of the word. We have a feudal monarchy with a few bits of democracy bolted on to it. It is difficult to identify a single development in the British constitution which has not been the result of a compromise between the ruling elite and some sort of opposing force that threatened its power. A little bit of power is ceded by the most powerful people in order to keep the greater amount of their power intact. Most of the rights and freedoms that exist in our country have come about through these little compromises. It has never been about doing the right thing for its own sake.
For example, we celebrate the Magna Carta as the “Great Charter of the Liberties”, but it was actually a very small step in reducing the power of the king. The English Bill of Rights was another deal where the rich men in Parliament obtained a guarantee of their rights and freedoms in exchange for granting the throne to William and Mary. The Representation of the People Act and the Parliament Acts have all been compromises that have allowed us to call ourselves a democracy when in truth we are not. Each of these developments has its unique historical and factual quirks, but the overall narrative is one of a power struggle resulting in a compromise to maintain as far as possible the status quo.
As another noble Lord has mentioned, almost every other country in the world has a written constitution. These have normally come about after some massive historical event such as a civil war or a revolution. We have never got to that stage. It means that we have something which is wholly unfit for a country that wants to call itself a 21st-century democracy.
Now we have Brexit. As has been said, in a sense it is a symptom of people feeling excluded and alienated by a system that was only ever devised to protect the rich—the ruling elite. The intense frustration directed at Brussels is made up of a sense that politics is something done to us, rather than something we are active participants in. This is just as true of our local, regional and national politics as it is at the EU level. The Green Party policy is very much about devolving power down to the most appropriate level. An example of that failing utterly is up in Lancashire, when the Government overruled every level of local government and imposed fracking on a community that did not want it. Democracy has failed utterly in that case because the Government were not the best part of our system to decide what to do.
Leaving the EU will not resolve that intense frustration and anger. People will feel just as disfranchised by our electoral system and our politicians. Equally, if the tide turns and we end up remaining in the EU, people will be just as frustrated because neither option on its own provides a viable way forward. I would therefore argue that a constitutional overhaul is the only solution. I have a lot of questions that I would like to put privately to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, about how he sees this going forward, and perhaps I will contribute in various ways. Organic change, as has been suggested, is simply not enough. There has to be an overhaul.
We in this House have tried to discuss changes that will make us more relevant. I brought forward a Bill on reforming the House of Lords to the point where it would be abolished completely. I almost did not get it through its First Reading because of the grumbles from all around the House. It did in fact get a Second Reading, and I will be tabling it again. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords who have said in this debate that they would like to see reform. Reform of this place is inevitable, and I look forward to their supporting the Bill when I bring it back.
I would also argue that first past the post has absolutely failed to supply strong and stable government in the way we have always supposed it would, so it is time to consider proportional representation. I have been elected under first past the post and under proportional representation. They are both perfectly valid ways of being a voice for people who would otherwise go unheard. I spent four years on Southwark Council as one of 63 councillors, which was very hard, and then I served for some years on the London Assembly combating Boris Johnson, which was much worse. The only way forward now is to rethink our democracy, and this convention would be a good way forward.
My Lords, I agreed with every single line of what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, but is it not a pity that I could not persuade her to be in favour of the European Union? That is the one thing lacking in her panoply of subjects and issues. I thank both her and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, whom I have never known make anything other than a very wise speech. I agreed with everything he said, too.
I particularly want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his remarks. I will embarrass him deliberately by congratulating him on his speech yesterday evening, alongside Timothy Garton Ash, about the future and what we will give up if we foolishly leave the European Union. He spoke about the history of Europe and what it means to everybody. That applies to us, too. Why do people think we are an exception, talking about “wicked foreigners”? We are not like that. I will annoy everybody by mentioning Brexit; I do not know whether anybody else has; I was out of the Chamber for a while.
I will also annoy everybody by saying that although I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on his interesting suggestion, which I support, none of these attempts will work until we agree to have a written constitution for the United Kingdom. I am glad somebody mentioned that earlier, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said. I do not know who it was as I was out with visitors; I shall read the Official Report with interest. People still shy away at the mention of a constitution, saying, “Oh no, that’s a foreign invention. We don’t like that”. The middle paragraph of the excellent committee memo says that there is no movement forward because we cannot get it. It is always in the knapsack of the unruly party-political game. Scotland has been a success because it was removed from that, to some extent, but I will be careful about what I say because I do not want to annoy anyone.
We must think about what leaving Europe means, particularly for younger voters. They, and people travelling and working in other European countries, will lose the European citizenship rights courageously brought in by John Major in the Lisbon treaty. If that treaty is abandoned and we lose those European citizenship rights, as well as pride in our national sovereignty, we are doomed to a foolish system where no one will agree. There is no agreement on party funding, which we have been discussing for years. There is no agreement on changing the voting system; again, I agree with previous remarks. The first-past-the-post system is ludicrous and must be changed, but that cannot be done through politicians. The public will shy away from an agreement to have politicians round the table trying to set things up, so enormous is the hatred of and mistrust towards politicians after what has happened in the past few years.
We need an official body in charge to look at these things dispassionately, not in the way of party politicians fighting their corner, furthering their own interests and not agreeing on anything. We have seen the terrible experience of a paralysed country in the past few years. I did not get on very well with Mrs Thatcher when I was a Conservative MP; I think I was the most left-wing one. Somebody said, “You’re almost as left-wing as Harold Macmillan”. I replied, “That’s impossible”. I remember trying to tell her a joke once, which was a disastrous mistake. I had come from a visit to Germany, where I had seen the Bundestag in action; they were working on privatisation after we had done the same. The coalition government spokesman in the Bundestag said, “We’re going to do three very careful privatisations, after six months of discussions with all parties to get an agreement”. In the Division Lobby, I foolishly told Mrs Thatcher this. She said, “What a mistake. They’re so weak”. The joke was the idea of her agreeing with anyone else, although I suppose the Northern Ireland agreement, for which history will thank her, was the exception in the end.
The voting system must be changed and a written constitution introduced. That must be done through a super-high commission of officials and experts—people from universities and so on—to make sure that the politicians are kept under control and not allowed to rampage around with their prejudices and foolish ideas. Why have we not had agreement on party funding after so many years? Cameron said that we would have a £5,000 maximum. Why has that not been done? The crux of what other European member states say when we go to see them is: why are we paralysed? I also live in France, which has a written constitution. That makes its system much more democratic than ours; I am sorry to say it but that is the reality. The more we go on with our pride in our past and our historical empire analogies, the more doomed we will be.
My Lords, I strongly support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for a constitutional convention. This is as well, because I will not say a single word after now with which he will not vehemently disagree. I hope he will forgive me.
As the last two speakers have done, I want to speak briefly about electoral reform. I know that AV was decisively rejected in the 2011 referendum. As a campaigner for electoral reform, that came as no surprise to me. It was a rushed, botched referendum where the pros were destroyed by the serial misjudgments of Nick Clegg, the then Liberal Democrat leader, and the treachery of David Cameron. However, as we are fast learning, no referendum result is for ever. When the facts change, the British people are entitled to change their view, and I think the facts have changed on electoral reform.
What facts on electoral reform have changed? Most significantly, since 2011, the traditional main argument of first-past-the-post supporters—that it provides strong and stable Governments—has been left in ruins. In truth, the system has always been liable not to produce such Governments, but between 1979 and 2010 a series of flukes led to majority Governments: under Labour because the Tories were unelectable and under the Tories because Labour was becoming unelectable. It remains the case that we are now mostly getting Parliaments in which another party holds the balance of power. Currently, it is the DUP; we can all see where that is getting us.
A sharp decline in marginal seats is spotted less often in this country, although it is commonly remarked on in the United States. Even since 2010, the number of marginal seats has fallen from 85 to 74, so the chances of a huge swing leading to an influx from a different party that then enjoys an overall majority have declined greatly. It is harder than ever for a big party to build up a lead in seats big enough to outnumber the MPs who do not belong to either main party. The reality is that, except in unusual circumstances, strong and stable Governments have gone—and that defence of first past the post with them.
The change in the nature of the two parties, partly caused by first past the post, is equally important. When I was being brought up in politics, I was taught that the main aim was to attract the centre ground; if you did not, you would not get into office. Of course, it is now possible to become a successful party by appealing to just a third of the electorate, as was said to be the strategy of Mr Ed Miliband in 2015. That strategy makes sense. At the same time, perhaps more crucially, the danger of the growth of a new party to the existing two big parties has been virtually removed by first past the post. The SDP nearly did it, under peculiar circumstances, but anyone who starts a new party now would not, I think, be optimistic about their chances of success.
So we have a terrible distortion in our democracy: two monopoly parties, each aiming at a smallish section of the electorate, each ever more a prisoner of their activist members. Arthur Balfour famously said of the Conservative Party that he would rather take advice from his valet. Nowadays, the activists in each party are in charge and call the shots, so we see the Brexiteers forcing the Prime Minister into the situation we saw yesterday, with many Conservative MPs cowering for fear of their local associations, and we see what we see in the Labour Party. There is no threat to the big parties’ monopolies because it is nearly impossible to establish a new party. I am not saying that we should do so; I would like the two big parties to behave differently and start to appeal to the centre ground again, but they will not while the situation is like that. The two big parties have not just a monopoly, but a protected monopoly.
I am not a supporter of pure proportional representative on, say, the Israeli model. I sat on the commission chaired by Lord Jenkins, which came up with the attractive, if a trifle complicated, solution of AV+. Times move on and today I would be content if a referendum approved AV tout simple, but the indefensibility of first past the post is clearer than ever. A constitutional convention is the best way to start a national debate on whether it should be replaced and by what.
Before I sit down, I shall pay my own tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, of whom I was a friend before either he or I were in this place. He is the greatest Speaker that the House of Commons never had. We shall miss him terribly.
My Lords, I am really grateful to my noble friend Lord Foulkes for his characteristically entertaining speech, though I did not particularly like his trip down memory lane to 1979, which, as he said, was one of the happiest days in his political life. It was one of the grimmest in mine, when the people of Lichfield and Tamworth decided that I should spend more time with my family.
I echo everything that has been said about the contribution that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has made over the years. How I envy the way the House clearly empathises with him, the tributes being paid to him and the warmth felt towards him, which so contrast with my experience when I involuntarily retired in 1979, when, I am sad to record, at the count there was much rejoicing in my departure. Those are two speeches that I shall not forget.
There is time for me to address only two issues relating to the debate. One is the state of English regional and local government, which my noble friend Lord Foulkes referred to as a dog’s breakfast. That is not a bad description. I also want to say a word or two about the dreaded issue of referendums, which have been an integral part of the various constitutional changes that have been made in Scotland, Wales and the north-east of England.
First, my noble friend said that the structure of local and regional government in England is a dog’s breakfast. There is such a variety of provision, with challenging and different powers and methods of election that are unintelligible to anyone without a degree in local government. How on earth are people expected to travel from one part to another in a unitary state and understand the completely different systems of local government to which they must turn for planning, housing, education, social services or any of the rest of it? It simply is not a defensible system.
Repeated constitutional experiments have led to this. The only thing they have in common is that most of them have not resulted in exultation and acclaim by the public. I remind Members of the House that we have mayors, metro mayors and police commissioners. We still have the unitary authorities. We have two-tier systems all over the country, but with this common factor: the failure of these new systems to engage the public.
To remind the House, the turnout at the 2016 police commissioner elections was consistently in the low 20s. The much-heralded mayoral elections in 2017 had a 21% turnout in Tees Valley, 26% in the West Midlands and 29%—the highest turnout—in Greater Manchester. This is no criticism of the people who fill these positions, as many splendid people have been elected as mayors, but that is hardly in any way validatory for those who said that this would bring a new drama and dynamism to local government. We know that the referendums in 2012 as to whether the city mayoral elections should be established resulted in nine noes and one yes. Public support is a pretty good basis for introducing any new system. We need a convention on English local and regional government before we move on to my noble friend’s convention.
Secondly, referendums have come and gone throughout the devolution process. There were two referendums in Scotland and Wales, and the north-east devolution referendum in 2004 in England. We can learn a bit from these referendums. They are relevant to our present dilemmas.
One thing I would say is: do not have any system of referendum that has any kind of fancy or problematical component to it, as the first referendum in Scotland did, where the winner was not the winner. That is not a good system. Keep it simple, binary and straightforward. Also, there has been a sea change since the referendums I referred to in Scotland, Wales and the north-east. For all of those the results were accepted, despite them being wafer thin, particularly in Wales, as referred to. In that referendum there was less than 1% difference between establishing devolution or not. At least those referendums were accepted.
What has characterised the two most recent referendums—the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 and the EU referendum in 2016—is that almost from the day the results were declared campaigns began to reverse them. I do not for a moment argue that it is not possible to review matters and to have second referendums, as happened in Scotland and Wales. I acknowledge that parliamentary elections are once every five years. But the idea that you can reverse a referendum result in two or two and a half years makes a joke of the whole referendum process.
At the very least, I hope these kinds of basic decisions about the conduct and operation of referendums can be considered in any convention. I suggest as an opening gambit that it should not be permissible for a referendum to be held with the same question in less than a 10-year period. I am being generous; we had to wait 40 years between the 1975 referendum and the one we held in 2016. There certainly should be a minimal period before you insult the public by asking them the same question twice.
I cannot help but remind the House that some care should be taken about expenditure in referendums. We know that there have been various challenges about the expenditure in the 2016 one, but the hugely well-financed campaign for a so-called people’s vote should also come into focus. I do not know how transparent all the figures are about where the money is coming from and how long it will be available for, but glossy brochures and opinion polls are quite common and familiar all around the country. We need a bit more transparency there too.
I support very much what my noble friend Lord Foulkes said in respect of ultimately having a convention, but in the meantime we want one on English local government. We also ought to tighten the rules on referendums.
My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate about our very complicated constitution, with a disparate range of views, not all of which are going to be easy to reconcile: that in a sense makes the case for having a convention. I join the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, who has had a very distinguished career, both in this House and in the other place. He and I were reminiscing just a few weeks ago about a visit we made to Zimbabwe—he mentioned Rhodesia in his speech—at a time when we hoped we might be able to help Zimbabwe in a more positive direction than it turned out. We tried very hard; unfortunately, not enough people listened. He recounted to the House the wide range of activities he has been involved in, as a Minister and as a Member of both Houses, and the House has demonstrated how much it appreciates him and wishes him well in his retirement.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on securing this debate: I absolutely support the objective behind it of having a constitutional convention. A number of points have been made, but I reflected on what happened yesterday. It brought home to me just how dysfunctional and medieval our political system is. A dispute in a minority party at the other end of the House, which nobody but 317 people were involved in, was supposed to keep us all on the edge of our seats about the destiny of our nation. If that is British democracy, it is a shameful humiliation that it has been brought down to that. The reality is, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, says, that in fact our British political system is at the mercy of the minorities who control the two largest parties—which are in themselves minorities—and we have the nerve to call that a democracy. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on that. We have some very fundamental thinking to do, because people are angry, disengaged and alienated. If we do not do something about it, I actually think we have to worry about civil disorder and unrest when people do not find any democratic outlets for securing the things that matter to them.
I pick on the big picture—the more focused picture. The dimension of England is always the problem for those of us who believe that some form of federal United Kingdom is the only way we can resolve the piecemeal reforms that we have initiated. The argument is that England is too big, so we can do nothing about it, but my noble friend Lord Greaves and others have made some suggestions. For example, my noble friend Lady Janke said we could look at how local government was secured in other countries, and mentioned Sweden and Germany. One of the problems with local government is that it just does not have its powers or financial resources secured: these should be constitutional rights enshrined in the law, and not subject to the will of some passing Secretary of State to start changing the powers or the allocation of how money is distributed, if he needs to please the Daily Mail on a given day for a headline.
Yet this is how our country is being run and has been run and there is very little that people can do. People in local government are asked to do more and more with less and less and as a result people say, “You are no use, you can’t do anything, you are not actually delivering for us”. We need a radical rethink, from top to bottom and side to side, but I suggest that before we have a federal constitution for the United Kingdom we absolutely have to address proper, effective, accountable devolution for England. However, I say in passing that that one of the bad consequences of the Scottish devolution settlement and the creation of a majority SNP Government is that it has been the victim of exactly the same paranoia that has been characteristic, in England, of taking control away from local government and centralising it under the control of a few Ministers. In Edinburgh we have lost control of the police, the fire service and many aspects of planning. We have lost control of our ability to actually fund the services that the Government expect us to provide.
We need, therefore, to start thinking about how we can draw people together, analyse the dysfunctionality that is characteristic of the way we run ourselves and, yes, learn from other countries. The interesting thing about Europe, never mind over 50 years but over the last 20 or 30 years, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is that when countries had the opportunity to look at the kind of democracy they wanted to be, none of them looked at the United Kingdom as the model to follow. They looked at countries that had proper constitutions and proper arrangements. My noble friend Lord Steel once famously said, “The British constitution is not worth the paper it isn’t written on”. Nobody quite knows what it is: it is there to be manipulated at will by minorities who happen to be in control at any given time.
I was a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and was very proud to be part of it. To be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, he acknowledged that while we naturally and unsurprisingly give the Labour Party credit—which it deserves because it had had a bloodied nose and needed to learn from it, and did learn from it—the convention was an offshoot of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, which was cross-party and non-party, which is really important. When we established the convention, we wanted to be sure that it was as representative and as legitimate as possible, so every elected Member of Parliament and of the European Parliament from Scotland was invited, ex officio, to be a member. Every council in Scotland was invited to send representations and it was supplemented by representatives of trade unions, business organisations, churches, women’s groups and a whole variety of civic society, to enable them to participate and be involved in it. It was not official; the Government of the day treated it with a degree of dismissive contempt and the SNP turned up only to walk out—with the intention of walking out, I think it would be fair to say.
That was unfortunate because there was plenty of room for building consensus, and we did. Indeed, I remember an occasion on which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I were on the opposite sides of the argument about the voting system. He claimed that I had a gun to his head and the chair of the Labour Party at the time said that the gun was loaded. It was not loaded by me; it was loaded just as much by the Labour movement and other members of the Labour Party, because they recognised that if you were going to secure a Parliament in Scotland commanding the support of the people of Scotland, it had to be genuinely representative of all parts of Scotland—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will understand that— not just the Glasgow Labour Party, which was what people feared. I give credit to Donald Dewar and other leaders for acknowledging that that was necessary. As a result of that, we moved from having an assembly to having a Parliament, to having more than the powers of the Scottish Office and to being elected by a proportional system.
That takes us on to issues such as referendums. If anything has been a constitutional outrage and abuse, it has been the use of referendums in this country. We have no constitutional basis for a referendum. We have a representative system of government, which the people boast about and celebrate, and then we suddenly throw into it the whim of a referendum, which is nearly always to meet the needs of a particular party in a mess. The net result of that political party in a mess has made the country a mess. What a disgraceful piece of leadership that turned out to be. The Scottish independence referendum was possibly the only way to address an issue: if a nationalist party wins a majority and says, “We have a mandate to try for independence”, a referendum is the way to test it. However, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that a simple question and a simple majority is the answer. Something as fundamental as constitutional change has to carry a very substantial majority for it to stick. If not, we have exactly the situation we have now; a country split down the middle, incapable of resolving its differences by any proper mechanism.
I am personally not very keen on the idea of a second referendum. I support a people’s vote only as a default mechanism because there does not seem to be any other way of resolving the dilemma. If Parliament can find a majority for a system that is genuinely uniting, I would support that, but the reality is that that does not look likely so it seems to me that we have to consult the people.
Fundamentally, I suggest that a constitutional convention needs to look from the bottom up. It needs to consult as widely as possible. It needs to include politicians: I do not think we can exclude them because in the end it will be politicians who have to implement it. The people making suggestions and having ideas who do not have political antennae need to be informed by that, but I agree that the politicians should not be the drivers. It should be a collective decision that draws from all opinions and especially from the grass roots up.
It has been done in other countries. The founding fathers of the United States built their system on it. Talking about the United States perhaps builds in one particular factor, which is that the lack of a written constitution and of real guarantees means that we have a lack of checks and balances built into our constitutional system. To those who say that we should just do everything gradually, bit by bit, I say that doing it that way is how we have got to this state. We have failed to do anything fundamental by analysing what we need to do. Some say that having gone down the road we have, with a Northern Ireland Assembly, a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, a London Assembly and the demand now for much more local and regional government in England, we are well on the way to creating a quasi, if not actual, federal United Kingdom. It is not possible to have a federal constitution that is not written down. By definition, you have to define where the powers lie and how disputes are resolved and the mechanisms for doing so. The whole point about a federal constitution is that power is divided according to the appropriate body for delivering it, and the powers and resources for that body are secured by the constitution, not by the Government of the day or the political minority that happens to be in control.
That would be a fundamental, radical change to the way we do things in this country. It is a citizens’ contract that has never been built. To the extent that we have acquiesced in the way that the country has been run, it is now breaking down to the point where it threatens our ability to make the country governable. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is very timely. I point out to him that my noble friend Lord Purvis suggested a Bill three or four years ago. Indeed, there is a fairly proud history of doing that. But the reality is that we need to move and to recognise that this constitution does not work.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock for tabling this Motion for debate today. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his diligent and exemplary service in both Houses, totalling 54 years. I have had the privilege of benefiting from the noble Lord’s wise counsel during my eight years as a Member of your Lordships’ House. I agree with other noble Lords that he will be much missed on all sides of the House.
Despite what else is going on in the political sphere—or perhaps because of it—it is good to have this debate today. Since 1997 in particular there has been considerable constitutional change in the United Kingdom. Most of it has been very welcome and needed and has made our country better. The devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were long overdue. It is a tragedy that the Northern Ireland Assembly is presently suspended and, like other noble Lords, I hope that an agreement can be reached to get it up and running again soon.
The establishment of the Greater London Authority, the Mayor of London and the London Assembly has been very welcome. I agree with my noble friend Lord Adonis about the success of the office of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly. I pay tribute to the members of the London Assembly. They do a very good job holding the mayor—of whatever political persuasion—to account each and every day. The establishment of the Supreme Court and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law were also welcome initiatives.
Not so welcome, in my opinion, have been the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the English votes for English laws procedure in the House of Commons, which my noble friend Lord Foulkes also referred to. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that there has to be a holistic approach to constitutional reform and the fact that there has not been has helped create the problems we face today. The decision in 2015 to have English votes for English laws highlights that we have not completed the constitutional changes needed and have left ourselves with a particular problem in England. Most noble Lords who spoke accepted that there is an issue there. So this debate is very welcome in that context.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes spoke about the need for a constitutional convention and he makes a very powerful case. Whether it is a convention or a convocation, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I do not really mind. We have to accept that we have a serious problem and we need to deal with it.
Our present Brexit crisis means that the Government are doing little else. That is a problem for us all. From what I can see, there is no strategic thinking about what changes are needed in the governance of the United Kingdom, no analysis of the problems, and no looking at how we can meet the challenges that we face and how can we do things in a better way that gives our citizens better engagement, understanding and ownership, and a feeling that that their views matter.
Nowhere is that more of a problem that in the present arrangements in England. I agree with my noble friend Lord Murphy about devolution in England —the lack of it, the problems that has caused and the urgent need for this to be readdressed. Many noble Lords made comments about the derisory powers of city leaders and mayors in comparison with those of their European counterparts. Boris Johnson is not a man I often agree with, but even he made the case for the additional devolution of fiscal powers to London during his term of office many years ago, although of course even he was unsuccessful in achieving that.
I also contend that the failure to deal with the issues in England has created much greater pressure on the union. I very much agree with the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, which observed that while there had been devolution of power elsewhere in the United Kingdom, England was a centralised unit, and:
“As a result, there is dissatisfaction within England with the current territorial constitution”.
I believe that a lot of our problems can be tracked back to one central issue. My noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock referred to the comments made by the Mayor of Liverpool about this being a top-down agenda. We have heard that he has left the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. When George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he looked at the whole question of where power is and created the northern powerhouse initiative. He sought to devolve powers—we can argue whether he was right or wrong—and to reorganise governance arrangements. I did not agree with all this but today, with his departure from government and now from the House of Commons, it has stalled. There appears to be no reforming zeal anywhere in government. There is no interest in the Treasury. There is no interest in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to move this forward. There is definitely no interest in Downing Street for this agenda. The combined authority/metro mayor model is flawed and confused and now lacks a champion in government.
I remember a contribution to a previous debate by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley—he is not in his place today—in which he told us that where he lives in Cambridgeshire, there are actually five tiers of local government: the metro mayor and the combined authority, the police and crime commissioner, the county council, the district council and the parish council. That is no way to deliver services and to be accountable to the local electorate.
To be fair, there is not much thinking in my own party on this at the moment. We need to look at these things. One of the benefits of being in opposition—there are not many—is that you can look at these matters, do some thinking, bring something forward and challenge ideas. That is important and we need to do that. The Member for Oldham West and Royton in the other place, Mr Jim McMahon MP, has begun some important work looking at the devolution settlement for England. As an Opposition we need to be coming forward with ideas to meet the challenges of governance that we face today. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hain’s comments about devolution in England and how we need to develop things. He also referred to the Member for Wigan in the other place, Lisa Nandy MP, and the important work she is doing looking at towns and how they can feel isolated and not engaged.
There is also a big job to be done by think tanks and organisations such as the Fabian Society, a much-respected organisation on the left of British politics, which has been affiliated to the Labour Party since its formation. If you look at our 1997 manifesto, the society had great influence on the issues we fought and won that election on. I should also make it clear that I have been a member of the society for 30 years and serve on its executive committee.
Thinking in other political parties is important as well. We need to make sure that political parties and organisations aligned with them also think about these things. No one party or organisation is the source of all good ideas. In the 2017 general election the Labour Party supported a constitutional convention as a way forward. Getting some sort of body together to consider these very important issues is a very welcome idea. It should comprise representatives of political parties, civil society and academia. We may need a number of different organisations to consider these questions urgently, because it cannot be just a body or a group of people who are seen to be detached. The issue of real citizen engagement has to be central to the work that any convention or convocation does.
The Library briefing was very helpful. I was interested to read about the work of Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick and agree with them that,
“genuine, well-grounded deliberation does not take place spontaneously”.
To go down this route would take considerable planning but could produce recommendations that are reasoned and coherent and, most importantly, address the issues that need addressing. Their Blueprint for a UK Constitutional Convention is a good piece of work and could form the basis of how we move forward, notwithstanding the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport about how we deliver constitutional change in our country. As I said earlier, however, there also needs to be thinking within the political parties and I suspect—unless the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, surprises us all when he responds—that the Government are at present not persuaded as to the merits of these proposals from my noble friend Lord Foulkes. There is plenty of time for us in the political parties to consider these issues carefully and maybe to persuade the Government at a later date.
I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock for bringing his Motion forward today. It has been a very useful debate and I look forward to the response from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham.
My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on his choice of subject and its timing, this debate coming as it does in a month when a number of important constitutional issues have captured the headlines. I join all noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Higgins. I first heard him speak from my party’s Front Bench in 1974, when he was part of Ted Heath’s opposition team, and have followed his career ever since. I remember him in particular chairing the Treasury Select Committee in the 1990s. The debates here will be the poorer without him. I hope that he does not entirely absent himself from political discourse, but uses other platforms. I was touched by his genuine tribute to his successors, the fact that he has done 54 years in public service and the way that he stuck up for his beliefs at a time when they were unpopular. The children of this country are for ever grateful to him for the rebate of VAT on children’s shoes.
It has been a real pleasure for me to listen to this debate, well informed and topical as it has been, as I have a long-standing interest in constitutional issues. I was my party’s spokesman in another place on the subject at the turn of the century, when we debated what became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, along with Lords reform. I served on a democracy taskforce, chaired by Ken Clarke, with fellow members including the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Tyrie, which promoted the policy of English votes for English laws. I shall come back to that in a moment. As the leader of the House in another place, I promoted some reforms in the coalition Government to give back to Parliament some of the powers the Executive had taken away. I have also done some time on the council of the Hansard Society and worked with my noble friend Lord Norton, when he was commissioned by the then leader of my party, now my noble friend Lord Hague, to work up his report on strengthening Parliament.
However, the pleasure of listening to and learning from this debate has been moderated by the knowledge that I am expected to wind it up. Noble Lords have given me a long frontier to patrol and while I will try to address some of the key issues raised, my remarks will mostly be a contribution to the debate rather than a summation. The wide-ranging nature of this debate highlights one of the problems with a constitutional convention—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. Noble Lords have raised so many issues that any convention looking into them would take years to do them justice. When I got the brief from the Cabinet Office for this debate, it was over 100 pages long and covered over 25 topics that could come under such a convention. Noble Lords have raised many others.
I am not averse to independent conventions looking at certain constitutional issues. Indeed, there have been many successful examples which we have heard of during this debate. We have had the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on reforms to this House; there were the Silk and Smith commissions on devolved powers; recent commissions, such as that of the UCL Constitution Unit on referendums, have added greatly to the debate and knowledge in this area. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord McConnell, reminded us that they were both part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and I applaud the success of that convention in producing two reports prior to the devolution changes in 1997. I also applaud the work of the noble Lords, Lord Lisvane and Lord Hain, on the Act of Union Bill, which I understand we will now be debating early next year. But the point about all these conventions is that they were narrowly focused, rather than the wide-ranging agenda proposed by the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, reminded us of the fate of the Kilbrandon commission.
The helpful Library briefing note for this debate referenced the work undertaken by Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Alan Renwick, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on their Blueprint for A UK Constitutional Convention. However, the quote that he used was not this one. The summary to the report said:
“While some activists would like to see an overarching constitutional review, there is good reason to think this would be too complex and controversial to yield useful results. Limiting the convention to one aspect of the constitution is likely to be better”.
As this suggests, it would be worth considering how such a large topic could be disaggregated and prioritised, with the key issues being more clearly defined.
The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, helpfully does not stipulate that the Government should initiate such a convention; indeed, he implied in his opening remarks that this was something the Opposition should do. Anticipating a government response the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said that there was no way that the Government would agree to this. What struck me during the discussion about the nature of such a convention was what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said when he spoke of the convention on which he served: that it was successful because it reflected the settled will of the people of Scotland. That convention had a purpose and that was why it succeeded. The whole argument behind this convention is, because there is no settled will or purpose, there is clear disagreement. Some noble Lords want a written constitution, including the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Dykes; others who have taken part in this debate would be firmly against a written constitution. The suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, that we should do this quickly and urgently is not an optimistic prognosis, given the difficulties it would have to cover.
While our debate has been wide-ranging, it has not covered everything that affects democratic accountability. For example, I regret the recent erosion of collective responsibility in government and the selective briefing of exchanges in Cabinet, both of which I believe hinder good government. Another issue central to democratic accountability in this country is the role of our political parties, hardly mentioned in this debate. Half of all voters think that British politics is broken. Only one in seven thinks that the Tories and Labour represent the views of the public—I will come to the Liberal Democrats in a moment. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly spoke of those who feel disfranchised and dispossessed. The noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke of alienation.
Half of those who spoke in this debate served in the other place. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out, as party membership declines, as has happened in my party, with its centre of gravity shifting to the right, or is swollen by supporters with a particular ideology, as has happened to the Labour Party in its shifts to the left, it may become more difficult for candidates in the centre of the political spectrum to get selected. Putting aside our age, how many of us who have spoken in this debate—predominantly remainers or Blairites—would be selected today?
Meanwhile, what has happened to the Liberal Democrats? For all my political life, when a Conservative Government have faced difficulties, whether that be under Macmillan in the 1960s, Heath in the 1970s, Thatcher in the early 1980s or Major in the 1990s, the third party has been a safety valve and has won by-elections, particularly when the Opposition party have also been unpopular. There was Orpington, Berwick, Crosby, Hillhead, Newbury and Christchurch among a long list, which brings back painful memories. Today, with a Government who are facing unprecedented difficulties and visibly divided, and a Labour Party led by its most left-wing leader in history—without Michael Foot’s gift of oratory and Cabinet experience—where is our third party? It is languishing in single figures. I make this point not to provoke but to underline the central importance of our parties to democratic accountability and the risk of their being seen as not relevant to voters. I reinforce the point made during this debate about the broad terms of reference of any convention on democratic accountability.
No one, except I think the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned the role of social media in our democracy. Last Saturday a former head of GCHQ said that Facebook poses a threat to democracy without tougher regulation. As I have said before, usually in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, we have an analogue regulatory system for our elections in a digital age. During the last three decades, the internet has revolutionised not only the way we interact with each other but the way we do politics. The digital landscape poses challenges for our democratic accountability that we cannot afford to shy away from addressing, so it is incumbent on this Government to keep pace with the changes to technology. We are determined to have a system that is fit for purpose, and we will be introducing reforms once relevant court cases have been disposed of and the relevant Select Committee and Electoral Commission reports are available to achieve that objective.
As others have outlined during this debate, constitutional conventions can work in some circumstances, but it depends on the situation. Other countries which have tried have found the process challenging. The recommendations of the conventions in British Columbia and Ontario were rejected when they were put to the public in referendums. In Ireland, of the 18 recommendations made by the Irish constitutional convention, only two were put to referendum and only one passed. In Iceland, where a more wide-ranging constitutional convention was undertaken, all six of the proposals of the constitutional council were passed following a referendum. However, they have not been taken forward by subsequent Governments. That highlights one of our key concerns with proposals for a constitutional convention: that they often fail to deliver the intended result.
I shall try to touch on some of the points that were raised during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, touched on AV and criticised first past the post. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that he has seen the hurdles facing those who want a second vote on the referendum where the result was 52% to 48%. What hurdles will confront those who want a second referendum on the result of the referendum we had on AV, when the vote was 67.9% to 32.1%, particularly against a background of the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that we should not repeat referendums too often?
A number of noble Lords made a valid point about the potential tension between government by referendum and government by representative democracy. What would have happened 40 years ago if any of us had stood for Parliament and been elected making it quite clear that we were opposed to capital punishment but there had been a referendum and the people decided that they wanted it? Would MPs have had to respect the result of the referendum and go against what they had said in their election address? There is a potential tension there which was rightly brought out in a number of comments.
English votes for English laws came in for a little bit of criticism from one or two noble Lords. I remember sitting in another place on a Standing Committee considering the Labour Government’s proposal to ban smoking in public places. In Standing Committee, there was an amendment to extend the ban to pubs, which was opposed by the Minister in the Standing Committee. There were enough people on the Standing Committee to demand a vote and the Government were saved by a Member of Parliament from Scotland, where smoking had already been banned in pubs, voting not to ban smoking in pubs in England. From that moment I became a strong advocate of English votes for English laws. Contrary to what a number of noble Lords have said, I think it has embedded fairness and balance into Parliament’s law-making process. I think it has strengthened England’s voice, just as devolution strengthened the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within our union. I think it is right that elected Members of the House of Commons who represent constituencies in England have the opportunity to give their consent on domestic legislation that affects only them, simply mirroring the position in Scotland.
On the case for an English Parliament, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, cast some doubts as to whether it would work, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, pointed out the asymmetry in the United Kingdom with such a large component of it being accounted for by one unit. If one looks at Andrew Blick’s pamphlet Federalism: The UK’s Future?, he makes the point that an English Parliament would not deliver the benefits of decentralisation associated with devolution. I think there is no consensus that an English Parliament is the way forward. I believe that English votes for English laws delivers a coherent constitutional response without the upheaval of an English Parliament.
Rather than work up the case for an English Parliament, we prefer to strengthen communities and regions within England through, in particular, the northern powerhouse and the Midlands engine and by developing a devolution framework for England, providing clarity for all English authorities about the future of English devolution. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said about the German Länder, but it seems to me that we do not have the building blocks that they have in Germany to create the structure that they have there.
A number of noble Lords mentioned regional assemblies. This was piloted in the north-west by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, and did not find favour, so since the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 came into force we have taken major steps to decentralise governance in England through devolution deals and combined authorities headed by elected mayors in seven city regions, with an eighth mayor in North of Tyne to be elected in May. A number of noble Lords said that this is asymmetrical and a muddle—I think that was the expression used—but it has happened only when it was what local authorities asked the Government to do. Combined authorities are created when that is what local authorities have decided to do. Likewise, if they want elected mayors rather than the traditional local authority settlement, that is what they can have.
I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about building on the success of elected mayors. Looking not just at London but at Manchester, we have arranged for particular combined authorities to assume the delivery of central government programmes such as the work and health programme and the life chances fund, and to help to develop new and innovative ways of working with local public services such as health and justice. I agree that this is a model we should build on. I think my noble friend Lord Heseltine can claim to be the champion of mayors in advance of anyone else who may make that claim.
I think elected mayors have been one of the successes in the British constitution. They chair their combined authorities and ensure strong and strategic leadership across a clear economic geography as a recognised leader who is accountable to voters in their region. They can act nationally and internationally as an ambassador for their region, boosting the area’s profile and helping to attract inward investment. Mayors also have soft powers, such as the ability to convene a range of stakeholders to tackle complex issues such as homelessness, and I applaud what Andy Burnham is doing on Manchester on that point. I think the introduction of strong mayors has been one of the most important constitutional changes in past years.
With two minutes left, I am not going to be able to do justice to the issues that were raised about Brexit and the impact on devolution, but I was struck by what two noble Lords said about having a single constitutional member in the Cabinet or, as I think was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, getting rid of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales altogether. As an English MP, I would have been worried about the potential impact on sentiment in Scotland if it no longer had a voice in a UK Cabinet but if he—
Perhaps I may say in conclusion that I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said towards the end of his remarks, that rather than go for this all-singing, all-dancing convention we should stand back. I was also struck by what my noble friend Lord Norton said about, instead of having this convention, starting off by having a good look at exactly where we are. I conclude conscious that I have not responded to the debate, but I thank all noble Lords who have taken part—and leave the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, a second or two in which to sum up.
My Lords, this has been an exceptional debate. It has gone a bit wider than I expected, but who am I to complain about that? It has been notable that the reply was clearly a ministerial reply, not a reading of a Civil Service brief. It was very welcome. I would like to tackle many of the points that have been raised but I do not have the time to do that. I finish by saying that I hope we will see the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, back again, and, if I am allowed to do so, I think we should dedicate this exceptional debate in his honour.