Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:52 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 12:52 pm, 13th December 2018

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 9 October and available in the Printed Paper Office. It offers the holistic approach advocated, I believe, by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. As Members of your Lordships’ House may be aware, it is the product of discussions in the Constitution Reform Group, a cross-party group to reform the relationship between the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, which was launched in 2015 and on which I sit.

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.