My Lords, 20 years of devolution over four nations is a substantial subject, and the initiators of this debate are to be congratulated on their choice of it. On
This year is also the anniversary—the 40th—of the first Scottish referendum on devolution, when the vote, although in favour of devolution, was not considered sufficient to enable such a major constitutional change. It was 52% in favour and 48% against. Such was how the “will of the people” was interpreted 1979.
The Labour Government of 1997 introduced devolution not only to Scotland but of course to Wales, London and, in a new form, to Northern Ireland. It must be said that these innovations were not greeted with universal enthusiasm—I note that the Minister was one of those not expressing such enthusiasm —but, as time passed and the institutions matured, acceptance and popularity increased. Many of those who opposed the whole concept of devolution gradually warmed to it. In Scotland, for example, the Conservative Party that opposed devolution initially has since come to perceive the devolved Parliament’s virtues—and not simply because it has become the largest opposition party of late.
Despite a somewhat uncertain start, devolution is now seen as a permanent part of the UK’s constitution. The motive for devolution was indeed improving governance. The introduction of voting systems that did not entrench Labour recognised that minority views should not be ignored in favour of winner-takes-all outcomes. The refusal to gerrymander the electoral system in the devolved legislatures has, it must be recognised, not always been entirely comfortable for Labour, but it has promoted government more representative of the electorate. Sometimes Government have to take decisions on the basis of national, not party interest.
Although the planning of devolution aimed at a relatively fixed set of arrangements, the reality has been an almost continuous process of evolution, with further powers being attached on the devolved legislatures. Wales voted in 2011 in favour of full legislative powers for the Assembly, shortly to be renamed the Senate; Scotland, via the Scotland Acts 2012 and 2016, gained power over income tax; in Northern Ireland, despite the problems with power-sharing, the Assembly remains the desired constitutional option for the majority. Of course, these Benches share the Minister’s encouragement of the return of a working Assembly.
The creation of new legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has unsurprisingly not been without problems. Government is difficult and devolved government was found to be more difficult than many expected, especially as most of the elected representatives were beginners in the business of legislating and governing. In addition, there are fewer legislators available than at Westminster to scrutinise legislation and, of course, there are no Second Chambers, of which we all recognise the benefit. The use of scrutiny committees was intended to improve the consideration of legislation but, at least in Scotland, this is not always proved to be the case. As my noble friend Lord McConnell has observed, scrutiny committees, when subject to party whipping, run the risk of becoming less effective. There is also a concern that capacity is stretched by the amount of legislation coming before the committees. This appears to be the case especially in Wales.
None the less, a real benefit of devolution has been the potential for experimentation with policy initiatives differing from those of the UK Parliament. Interestingly, these initiatives have sometimes been picked up by the UK Government: one example already referred to is the smoking ban in Scotland in 2006, which was followed not only by the UK Parliament but by the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies. Another example, again already referred to, is the Welsh Assembly’s legislation to impose a levy on plastic bags in 2011, which has been followed by the rest of the UK. Experimentation in the nations of the UK introduced by the nations themselves avoids the democratic default when it is imposed by central government. Few in Scotland can forget the debacle when Scotland was used by central government as the experimental ground for the poll tax.
In the business of government there has been development to provide an arrangement more compatible with national requirements both in Scotland and in Wales. The 2007 reform of the Civil Service in Scotland to introduce collective rather than departmental objectives appears to have produced a more coherent, more flexible organisation more in keeping with the smaller scale of government. The Civil Service in Wales has adopted a similar structure. One complaint one hears, however, is that the past practice of moving civil servants from Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast to London and back again has been substantially reduced, with a concomitant loss of skills transfers to the devolved Administrations.
One development in recent years that was not foreseen by the proponents of devolution at the outset has been the degree of fiscal devolution. The power to spend being substantially divorced from revenue-raising created tensions across the devolution settlements. Devolved Governments of a different political stripe from the UK Government argued for tax-raising powers and central government, wishing to improve financial responsibility, tended to agree. The subsequent divergence of taxes within the UK may be said to encourage the experimentation that has occurred in other areas of policy, but it has also shaken the coherence of the UK tax regime. Divergence has been most marked in Scotland with the introduction of a more progressive income tax structure and stamp duty rate than the rest of the UK. The one unforeseen consequence according to business—one assumes that it was unforeseen—has been the difficulty in attracting higher paid executives to Scotland from the rest of the UK. An employee earning £50,000 per annum currently pays £1,500 more income tax in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. The lower-paid have a lighter tax burden, which, of course, is a positive. It will be interesting to see how such divergence translates into the overall economy in the years to come.
Economic issues will doubtless become more pointed should the UK leave the EU. The EU funding of agriculture, rural development and structural funds benefits the devolved nations disproportionately. Her Majesty’s Government’s stated commitments for future post-Brexit funding are somewhat vague going into the medium term. This is self-evidently unsatisfactory. The absence of a coherent plan as to how EU funding would be replaced is likely to provoke not only continuing debate but new tensions.
The current proposal by Her Majesty’s Government to retain powers over agriculture and fisheries, regional policy and some aspects of state aid for up to seven years seems to challenge the devolution settlements. An increase in centralisation of the UK goes against the grain of devolution, and to what end? One might hope that there would be a worked-out strategy for this aspect of devolution. An ad hoc approach to constitutional development carries many risks for the integrity of the UK. We have surely learned that lesson, at least over the last few years.
In looking at the last 20 years of devolution I have endeavoured to steer clear of the political disputes that have arisen both within the devolved legislatures and with the UK Parliament, but it goes without saying that there have been many such disputes. The demands for independence and the critiques of policies on health, education, housing, environment, justice and so on have certainly contributed to lively debate. It could not be otherwise. Have there been mistakes, unforeseen consequences and tensions with the UK Government? But of course. It may be said, as Gordon Brown did on Monday, that non-stop constitutional argument in the Scottish Parliament does not favour good government. But it may also be said that, no matter what blunders there are, those errors are made by the devolved, elected representatives themselves. We make our own errors. Moreover, the devolved Administrations do not have a monopoly on error, as recent years have perhaps demonstrated here.
On balance, devolution has undeniably improved democratic accountability within the UK. At a time of unparalleled constitutional uncertainty, that must be one positive in the UK’s governance.