Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:12 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Bryan of Partick Baroness Bryan of Partick Labour 1:12 pm, 13th December 2018

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.