Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 11:38 am, 13th December 2018

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.