Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:20 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:20 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on his choice of subject and its timing, this debate coming as it does in a month when a number of important constitutional issues have captured the headlines. I join all noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Higgins. I first heard him speak from my party’s Front Bench in 1974, when he was part of Ted Heath’s opposition team, and have followed his career ever since. I remember him in particular chairing the Treasury Select Committee in the 1990s. The debates here will be the poorer without him. I hope that he does not entirely absent himself from political discourse, but uses other platforms. I was touched by his genuine tribute to his successors, the fact that he has done 54 years in public service and the way that he stuck up for his beliefs at a time when they were unpopular. The children of this country are for ever grateful to him for the rebate of VAT on children’s shoes.

It has been a real pleasure for me to listen to this debate, well informed and topical as it has been, as I have a long-standing interest in constitutional issues. I was my party’s spokesman in another place on the subject at the turn of the century, when we debated what became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, along with Lords reform. I served on a democracy taskforce, chaired by Ken Clarke, with fellow members including the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Tyrie, which promoted the policy of English votes for English laws. I shall come back to that in a moment. As the leader of the House in another place, I promoted some reforms in the coalition Government to give back to Parliament some of the powers the Executive had taken away. I have also done some time on the council of the Hansard Society and worked with my noble friend Lord Norton, when he was commissioned by the then leader of my party, now my noble friend Lord Hague, to work up his report on strengthening Parliament.

However, the pleasure of listening to and learning from this debate has been moderated by the knowledge that I am expected to wind it up. Noble Lords have given me a long frontier to patrol and while I will try to address some of the key issues raised, my remarks will mostly be a contribution to the debate rather than a summation. The wide-ranging nature of this debate highlights one of the problems with a constitutional convention—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. Noble Lords have raised so many issues that any convention looking into them would take years to do them justice. When I got the brief from the Cabinet Office for this debate, it was over 100 pages long and covered over 25 topics that could come under such a convention. Noble Lords have raised many others.

I am not averse to independent conventions looking at certain constitutional issues. Indeed, there have been many successful examples which we have heard of during this debate. We have had the report of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on reforms to this House; there were the Silk and Smith commissions on devolved powers; recent commissions, such as that of the UCL Constitution Unit on referendums, have added greatly to the debate and knowledge in this area. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord McConnell, reminded us that they were both part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and I applaud the success of that convention in producing two reports prior to the devolution changes in 1997. I also applaud the work of the noble Lords, Lord Lisvane and Lord Hain, on the Act of Union Bill, which I understand we will now be debating early next year. But the point about all these conventions is that they were narrowly focused, rather than the wide-ranging agenda proposed by the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, reminded us of the fate of the Kilbrandon commission.

The helpful Library briefing note for this debate referenced the work undertaken by Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Alan Renwick, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on their Blueprint for A UK Constitutional Convention. However, the quote that he used was not this one. The summary to the report said:

“While some activists would like to see an overarching constitutional review, there is good reason to think this would be too complex and controversial to yield useful results. Limiting the convention to one aspect of the constitution is likely to be better”.

As this suggests, it would be worth considering how such a large topic could be disaggregated and prioritised, with the key issues being more clearly defined.

The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, helpfully does not stipulate that the Government should initiate such a convention; indeed, he implied in his opening remarks that this was something the Opposition should do. Anticipating a government response the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said that there was no way that the Government would agree to this. What struck me during the discussion about the nature of such a convention was what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said when he spoke of the convention on which he served: that it was successful because it reflected the settled will of the people of Scotland. That convention had a purpose and that was why it succeeded. The whole argument behind this convention is, because there is no settled will or purpose, there is clear disagreement. Some noble Lords want a written constitution, including the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Dykes; others who have taken part in this debate would be firmly against a written constitution. The suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, that we should do this quickly and urgently is not an optimistic prognosis, given the difficulties it would have to cover.

While our debate has been wide-ranging, it has not covered everything that affects democratic accountability. For example, I regret the recent erosion of collective responsibility in government and the selective briefing of exchanges in Cabinet, both of which I believe hinder good government. Another issue central to democratic accountability in this country is the role of our political parties, hardly mentioned in this debate. Half of all voters think that British politics is broken. Only one in seven thinks that the Tories and Labour represent the views of the public—I will come to the Liberal Democrats in a moment. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly spoke of those who feel disfranchised and dispossessed. The noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke of alienation.

Half of those who spoke in this debate served in the other place. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out, as party membership declines, as has happened in my party, with its centre of gravity shifting to the right, or is swollen by supporters with a particular ideology, as has happened to the Labour Party in its shifts to the left, it may become more difficult for candidates in the centre of the political spectrum to get selected. Putting aside our age, how many of us who have spoken in this debate—predominantly remainers or Blairites—would be selected today?

Meanwhile, what has happened to the Liberal Democrats? For all my political life, when a Conservative Government have faced difficulties, whether that be under Macmillan in the 1960s, Heath in the 1970s, Thatcher in the early 1980s or Major in the 1990s, the third party has been a safety valve and has won by-elections, particularly when the Opposition party have also been unpopular. There was Orpington, Berwick, Crosby, Hillhead, Newbury and Christchurch among a long list, which brings back painful memories. Today, with a Government who are facing unprecedented difficulties and visibly divided, and a Labour Party led by its most left-wing leader in history—without Michael Foot’s gift of oratory and Cabinet experience—where is our third party? It is languishing in single figures. I make this point not to provoke but to underline the central importance of our parties to democratic accountability and the risk of their being seen as not relevant to voters. I reinforce the point made during this debate about the broad terms of reference of any convention on democratic accountability.

No one, except I think the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned the role of social media in our democracy. Last Saturday a former head of GCHQ said that Facebook poses a threat to democracy without tougher regulation. As I have said before, usually in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, we have an analogue regulatory system for our elections in a digital age. During the last three decades, the internet has revolutionised not only the way we interact with each other but the way we do politics. The digital landscape poses challenges for our democratic accountability that we cannot afford to shy away from addressing, so it is incumbent on this Government to keep pace with the changes to technology. We are determined to have a system that is fit for purpose, and we will be introducing reforms once relevant court cases have been disposed of and the relevant Select Committee and Electoral Commission reports are available to achieve that objective.

As others have outlined during this debate, constitutional conventions can work in some circumstances, but it depends on the situation. Other countries which have tried have found the process challenging. The recommendations of the conventions in British Columbia and Ontario were rejected when they were put to the public in referendums. In Ireland, of the 18 recommendations made by the Irish constitutional convention, only two were put to referendum and only one passed. In Iceland, where a more wide-ranging constitutional convention was undertaken, all six of the proposals of the constitutional council were passed following a referendum. However, they have not been taken forward by subsequent Governments. That highlights one of our key concerns with proposals for a constitutional convention: that they often fail to deliver the intended result.

I shall try to touch on some of the points that were raised during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, touched on AV and criticised first past the post. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that he has seen the hurdles facing those who want a second vote on the referendum where the result was 52% to 48%. What hurdles will confront those who want a second referendum on the result of the referendum we had on AV, when the vote was 67.9% to 32.1%, particularly against a background of the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that we should not repeat referendums too often?

A number of noble Lords made a valid point about the potential tension between government by referendum and government by representative democracy. What would have happened 40 years ago if any of us had stood for Parliament and been elected making it quite clear that we were opposed to capital punishment but there had been a referendum and the people decided that they wanted it? Would MPs have had to respect the result of the referendum and go against what they had said in their election address? There is a potential tension there which was rightly brought out in a number of comments.

English votes for English laws came in for a little bit of criticism from one or two noble Lords. I remember sitting in another place on a Standing Committee considering the Labour Government’s proposal to ban smoking in public places. In Standing Committee, there was an amendment to extend the ban to pubs, which was opposed by the Minister in the Standing Committee. There were enough people on the Standing Committee to demand a vote and the Government were saved by a Member of Parliament from Scotland, where smoking had already been banned in pubs, voting not to ban smoking in pubs in England. From that moment I became a strong advocate of English votes for English laws. Contrary to what a number of noble Lords have said, I think it has embedded fairness and balance into Parliament’s law-making process. I think it has strengthened England’s voice, just as devolution strengthened the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within our union. I think it is right that elected Members of the House of Commons who represent constituencies in England have the opportunity to give their consent on domestic legislation that affects only them, simply mirroring the position in Scotland.

On the case for an English Parliament, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, cast some doubts as to whether it would work, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, pointed out the asymmetry in the United Kingdom with such a large component of it being accounted for by one unit. If one looks at Andrew Blick’s pamphlet Federalism: The UK’s Future?, he makes the point that an English Parliament would not deliver the benefits of decentralisation associated with devolution. I think there is no consensus that an English Parliament is the way forward. I believe that English votes for English laws delivers a coherent constitutional response without the upheaval of an English Parliament.

Rather than work up the case for an English Parliament, we prefer to strengthen communities and regions within England through, in particular, the northern powerhouse and the Midlands engine and by developing a devolution framework for England, providing clarity for all English authorities about the future of English devolution. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said about the German Länder, but it seems to me that we do not have the building blocks that they have in Germany to create the structure that they have there.

A number of noble Lords mentioned regional assemblies. This was piloted in the north-west by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, and did not find favour, so since the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 came into force we have taken major steps to decentralise governance in England through devolution deals and combined authorities headed by elected mayors in seven city regions, with an eighth mayor in North of Tyne to be elected in May. A number of noble Lords said that this is asymmetrical and a muddle—I think that was the expression used—but it has happened only when it was what local authorities asked the Government to do. Combined authorities are created when that is what local authorities have decided to do. Likewise, if they want elected mayors rather than the traditional local authority settlement, that is what they can have.

I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about building on the success of elected mayors. Looking not just at London but at Manchester, we have arranged for particular combined authorities to assume the delivery of central government programmes such as the work and health programme and the life chances fund, and to help to develop new and innovative ways of working with local public services such as health and justice. I agree that this is a model we should build on. I think my noble friend Lord Heseltine can claim to be the champion of mayors in advance of anyone else who may make that claim.

I think elected mayors have been one of the successes in the British constitution. They chair their combined authorities and ensure strong and strategic leadership across a clear economic geography as a recognised leader who is accountable to voters in their region. They can act nationally and internationally as an ambassador for their region, boosting the area’s profile and helping to attract inward investment. Mayors also have soft powers, such as the ability to convene a range of stakeholders to tackle complex issues such as homelessness, and I applaud what Andy Burnham is doing on Manchester on that point. I think the introduction of strong mayors has been one of the most important constitutional changes in past years.

With two minutes left, I am not going to be able to do justice to the issues that were raised about Brexit and the impact on devolution, but I was struck by what two noble Lords said about having a single constitutional member in the Cabinet or, as I think was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, getting rid of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales altogether. As an English MP, I would have been worried about the potential impact on sentiment in Scotland if it no longer had a voice in a UK Cabinet but if he—