Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:12 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 1:12 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on such a timely debate. I have been exposed to constitutional issues for a long time as a senior civil servant, special adviser, Minister and Member of this House. I have always had reservations about our unwritten constitution, once described by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as the “good chaps” system of government. I thought we were moving away from this with the constitutional changes introduced by the new Labour Government after 1997, in which I was involved.

It is worth reminding ourselves what a Government can achieve in these areas when they put their mind to it. Devolved Administrations were introduced, although regional assemblies for England were not pursued; a Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law; freedom of information legislation reduced Whitehall’s secrets; most of the hereditary Peers were removed from this House, although our functions remained unchanged; and stronger oversight of elections was introduced. For a while it looked as though this programme would take the UK forward on a reasonably agreed basis, but Brexit has shown otherwise. Enabling major changes to international treaties through populist referendums has exposed our representative parliamentary democracy to serious dangers. Until the last 48 hours, Parliament has proved incapable of stopping two misguided Conservative Prime Ministers seriously damaging our country through vain attempts to unify their own political party. The result was well captured by a leader article in the Economist on 22 December, which commented on how,

“a rich, peaceful and apparently stable country can absent-mindedly set fire to its constitutional arrangements without any serious plan for replacing them”.

That seems to sum up pretty well where we have managed to get to.

We have to start considering the major constitutional weaknesses exposed by the whole Brexit fiasco. We badly need to reshape the current constitutional settlement and the relationship between the centre and the nations and regions. We need one that includes much more effective curbs on the Executive. For a start we need to reconsider the size, functions and character of both Houses of Parliament and to better define their relationship both to the Executive and to the devolved Administrations and English regions—a sadly neglected area. We now have no effective Government in Northern Ireland, a restive Scottish Government with independence still on its mind and no consistency of approach to major English city regions. Reforming the functions, composition and size of this House is long overdue. We should be changing it to an indirectly elected and partially appointed senate with a strong regional and nation component.

The pressure for some kind of broad-spectrum constitutional debate seems inevitable. The more we can do to generate that, the better. This debate will need to involve all parts of the UK and to consider the relationship between government at all levels—UK, regional and nation, and local. The neglect of local government in England in particular is a disgrace. Some new forum to begin work on this agenda is badly needed, because I cannot see either of the two main political parties in their present state tackling an agenda of this kind.