Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:57 am on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 11:57 am, 13th December 2018

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.