Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:17 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 12:17 pm, 13th December 2018

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.