Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:10 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 2:10 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock for tabling this Motion for debate today. I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his diligent and exemplary service in both Houses, totalling 54 years. I have had the privilege of benefiting from the noble Lord’s wise counsel during my eight years as a Member of your Lordships’ House. I agree with other noble Lords that he will be much missed on all sides of the House.

Despite what else is going on in the political sphere—or perhaps because of it—it is good to have this debate today. Since 1997 in particular there has been considerable constitutional change in the United Kingdom. Most of it has been very welcome and needed and has made our country better. The devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were long overdue. It is a tragedy that the Northern Ireland Assembly is presently suspended and, like other noble Lords, I hope that an agreement can be reached to get it up and running again soon.

The establishment of the Greater London Authority, the Mayor of London and the London Assembly has been very welcome. I agree with my noble friend Lord Adonis about the success of the office of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly. I pay tribute to the members of the London Assembly. They do a very good job holding the mayor—of whatever political persuasion—to account each and every day. The establishment of the Supreme Court and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law were also welcome initiatives.

Not so welcome, in my opinion, have been the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the English votes for English laws procedure in the House of Commons, which my noble friend Lord Foulkes also referred to. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that there has to be a holistic approach to constitutional reform and the fact that there has not been has helped create the problems we face today. The decision in 2015 to have English votes for English laws highlights that we have not completed the constitutional changes needed and have left ourselves with a particular problem in England. Most noble Lords who spoke accepted that there is an issue there. So this debate is very welcome in that context.

My noble friend Lord Foulkes spoke about the need for a constitutional convention and he makes a very powerful case. Whether it is a convention or a convocation, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I do not really mind. We have to accept that we have a serious problem and we need to deal with it.

Our present Brexit crisis means that the Government are doing little else. That is a problem for us all. From what I can see, there is no strategic thinking about what changes are needed in the governance of the United Kingdom, no analysis of the problems, and no looking at how we can meet the challenges that we face and how can we do things in a better way that gives our citizens better engagement, understanding and ownership, and a feeling that that their views matter.

Nowhere is that more of a problem that in the present arrangements in England. I agree with my noble friend Lord Murphy about devolution in England —the lack of it, the problems that has caused and the urgent need for this to be readdressed. Many noble Lords made comments about the derisory powers of city leaders and mayors in comparison with those of their European counterparts. Boris Johnson is not a man I often agree with, but even he made the case for the additional devolution of fiscal powers to London during his term of office many years ago, although of course even he was unsuccessful in achieving that.

I also contend that the failure to deal with the issues in England has created much greater pressure on the union. I very much agree with the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, which observed that while there had been devolution of power elsewhere in the United Kingdom, England was a centralised unit, and:

“As a result, there is dissatisfaction within England with the current territorial constitution”.

I believe that a lot of our problems can be tracked back to one central issue. My noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock referred to the comments made by the Mayor of Liverpool about this being a top-down agenda. We have heard that he has left the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. When George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he looked at the whole question of where power is and created the northern powerhouse initiative. He sought to devolve powers—we can argue whether he was right or wrong—and to reorganise governance arrangements. I did not agree with all this but today, with his departure from government and now from the House of Commons, it has stalled. There appears to be no reforming zeal anywhere in government. There is no interest in the Treasury. There is no interest in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to move this forward. There is definitely no interest in Downing Street for this agenda. The combined authority/metro mayor model is flawed and confused and now lacks a champion in government.

I remember a contribution to a previous debate by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley—he is not in his place today—in which he told us that where he lives in Cambridgeshire, there are actually five tiers of local government: the metro mayor and the combined authority, the police and crime commissioner, the county council, the district council and the parish council. That is no way to deliver services and to be accountable to the local electorate.

To be fair, there is not much thinking in my own party on this at the moment. We need to look at these things. One of the benefits of being in opposition—there are not many—is that you can look at these matters, do some thinking, bring something forward and challenge ideas. That is important and we need to do that. The Member for Oldham West and Royton in the other place, Mr Jim McMahon MP, has begun some important work looking at the devolution settlement for England. As an Opposition we need to be coming forward with ideas to meet the challenges of governance that we face today. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hain’s comments about devolution in England and how we need to develop things. He also referred to the Member for Wigan in the other place, Lisa Nandy MP, and the important work she is doing looking at towns and how they can feel isolated and not engaged.

There is also a big job to be done by think tanks and organisations such as the Fabian Society, a much-respected organisation on the left of British politics, which has been affiliated to the Labour Party since its formation. If you look at our 1997 manifesto, the society had great influence on the issues we fought and won that election on. I should also make it clear that I have been a member of the society for 30 years and serve on its executive committee.

Thinking in other political parties is important as well. We need to make sure that political parties and organisations aligned with them also think about these things. No one party or organisation is the source of all good ideas. In the 2017 general election the Labour Party supported a constitutional convention as a way forward. Getting some sort of body together to consider these very important issues is a very welcome idea. It should comprise representatives of political parties, civil society and academia. We may need a number of different organisations to consider these questions urgently, because it cannot be just a body or a group of people who are seen to be detached. The issue of real citizen engagement has to be central to the work that any convention or convocation does.

The Library briefing was very helpful. I was interested to read about the work of Professor Hazell and Dr Renwick and agree with them that,

“genuine, well-grounded deliberation does not take place spontaneously”.

To go down this route would take considerable planning but could produce recommendations that are reasoned and coherent and, most importantly, address the issues that need addressing. Their Blueprint for a UK Constitutional Convention is a good piece of work and could form the basis of how we move forward, notwithstanding the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport about how we deliver constitutional change in our country. As I said earlier, however, there also needs to be thinking within the political parties and I suspect—unless the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, surprises us all when he responds—that the Government are at present not persuaded as to the merits of these proposals from my noble friend Lord Foulkes. There is plenty of time for us in the political parties to consider these issues carefully and maybe to persuade the Government at a later date.

I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock for bringing his Motion forward today. It has been a very useful debate and I look forward to the response from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham.