Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:51 pm on 13th December 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 1:51 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I am really grateful to my noble friend Lord Foulkes for his characteristically entertaining speech, though I did not particularly like his trip down memory lane to 1979, which, as he said, was one of the happiest days in his political life. It was one of the grimmest in mine, when the people of Lichfield and Tamworth decided that I should spend more time with my family.

I echo everything that has been said about the contribution that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has made over the years. How I envy the way the House clearly empathises with him, the tributes being paid to him and the warmth felt towards him, which so contrast with my experience when I involuntarily retired in 1979, when, I am sad to record, at the count there was much rejoicing in my departure. Those are two speeches that I shall not forget.

There is time for me to address only two issues relating to the debate. One is the state of English regional and local government, which my noble friend Lord Foulkes referred to as a dog’s breakfast. That is not a bad description. I also want to say a word or two about the dreaded issue of referendums, which have been an integral part of the various constitutional changes that have been made in Scotland, Wales and the north-east of England.

First, my noble friend said that the structure of local and regional government in England is a dog’s breakfast. There is such a variety of provision, with challenging and different powers and methods of election that are unintelligible to anyone without a degree in local government. How on earth are people expected to travel from one part to another in a unitary state and understand the completely different systems of local government to which they must turn for planning, housing, education, social services or any of the rest of it? It simply is not a defensible system.

Repeated constitutional experiments have led to this. The only thing they have in common is that most of them have not resulted in exultation and acclaim by the public. I remind Members of the House that we have mayors, metro mayors and police commissioners. We still have the unitary authorities. We have two-tier systems all over the country, but with this common factor: the failure of these new systems to engage the public.

To remind the House, the turnout at the 2016 police commissioner elections was consistently in the low 20s. The much-heralded mayoral elections in 2017 had a 21% turnout in Tees Valley, 26% in the West Midlands and 29%—the highest turnout—in Greater Manchester. This is no criticism of the people who fill these positions, as many splendid people have been elected as mayors, but that is hardly in any way validatory for those who said that this would bring a new drama and dynamism to local government. We know that the referendums in 2012 as to whether the city mayoral elections should be established resulted in nine noes and one yes. Public support is a pretty good basis for introducing any new system. We need a convention on English local and regional government before we move on to my noble friend’s convention.

Secondly, referendums have come and gone throughout the devolution process. There were two referendums in Scotland and Wales, and the north-east devolution referendum in 2004 in England. We can learn a bit from these referendums. They are relevant to our present dilemmas.

One thing I would say is: do not have any system of referendum that has any kind of fancy or problematical component to it, as the first referendum in Scotland did, where the winner was not the winner. That is not a good system. Keep it simple, binary and straightforward. Also, there has been a sea change since the referendums I referred to in Scotland, Wales and the north-east. For all of those the results were accepted, despite them being wafer thin, particularly in Wales, as referred to. In that referendum there was less than 1% difference between establishing devolution or not. At least those referendums were accepted.

What has characterised the two most recent referendums—the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 and the EU referendum in 2016—is that almost from the day the results were declared campaigns began to reverse them. I do not for a moment argue that it is not possible to review matters and to have second referendums, as happened in Scotland and Wales. I acknowledge that parliamentary elections are once every five years. But the idea that you can reverse a referendum result in two or two and a half years makes a joke of the whole referendum process.

At the very least, I hope these kinds of basic decisions about the conduct and operation of referendums can be considered in any convention. I suggest as an opening gambit that it should not be permissible for a referendum to be held with the same question in less than a 10-year period. I am being generous; we had to wait 40 years between the 1975 referendum and the one we held in 2016. There certainly should be a minimal period before you insult the public by asking them the same question twice.

I cannot help but remind the House that some care should be taken about expenditure in referendums. We know that there have been various challenges about the expenditure in the 2016 one, but the hugely well-financed campaign for a so-called people’s vote should also come into focus. I do not know how transparent all the figures are about where the money is coming from and how long it will be available for, but glossy brochures and opinion polls are quite common and familiar all around the country. We need a bit more transparency there too.

I support very much what my noble friend Lord Foulkes said in respect of ultimately having a convention, but in the meantime we want one on English local government. We also ought to tighten the rules on referendums.