Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:05 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 6:05 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for the generosity he showed in introducing this debate to a number of individuals in the Chamber who have made contributions over the past 20 years.

Having supported devolution all my political life, going back over 50 years, I was privileged to have organised the Government’s and Welsh Labour’s referendum campaign in 1997—though whether I should remind noble Lords of that, given the decimal-point narrowness of the win, is another matter entirely. My friend the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, will recall the drama of that night in the royal college of music, as the results came in to be centrally collated by my officials and those of Ron Davies and Win Griffiths. We had relays of depressing results, and then suddenly Carmarthenshire swept us past right at the last minute. I should point out for the record that the biggest yes vote was in my own constituency of Neath, so I take Neath as the leader of that campaign.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who has become a good friend and comrade—although I do not want to do him down in his own party—played a very important role in the campaign and fight for devolution in Wales over many decades. So too did my noble friend Lady Gale. She used to be my party boss, and will recall that I was always very obedient. But she had occasion to rap me over the knuckles when, in 1994, I attended a Parliament for Wales conference in Llandrindod Wells. It was attended by some Labour Party members, but mostly by members of Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and others, and I should not have been there, according to the Welsh executive—anyway, that is in the past.

As Welsh Minister, I helped take through the Government of Wales Act 1998. I also served as Secretary of State for Wales for seven years and was responsible for the Government of Wales Act 2006, which has been referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, among others. It delivered the full lawmaking powers, subject to a referendum, which produced that verdict overwhelmingly in 2011.

The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, was straightforward enough to say that there was bitter Conservative opposition in the referendum campaign to both the 1998 Act and the 2006 Act. It is a great credit to the movement of opinion that we are having this commemorating debate. The case for devolution in Wales is now overwhelmingly supported, including by his party and to his credit. As Welsh Conservative leader in the Assembly, he played an important role in influencing his party to come around to accepting the critical importance of devolution to Wales. Imagine if we did not have the Welsh Assembly. Imagine where Wales would be now as the only nation in the United Kingdom without its own legislative Assembly. It would have been left behind. As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, reminded us, a lot of innovation through legislation has come through the Assembly, including the Children’s Commissioner and the Older People’s Commissioner, which were replicated in other parts of the UK later on. It is now unthinkable for anyone, even those in nearly half the voting electorate in 1997, to imagine the Welsh Assembly being abolished or devolution being reversed. Indeed, the progress has been to extend and empower Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 2005 and 2007, under Tony Blair, I helped to negotiate the settlement that brought Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness into power—and they were real leaders. Whether we agree with their hinterland or their history, they were real leaders. We have a serious leadership vacuum in Northern Ireland’s politics now. It is a real crisis. I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, referred in his speech to positive employment indices and so forth, but that does not even begin to get to grips with what is a serious crisis in Northern Ireland.

I am not the only Member of this House to have pointed that out. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, with his powerful oratory, has emphasised and underlined that it is a serious crisis. We have a palpable lack of leadership, not just among the political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the DUP and Sinn Féin, but in No. 10 on the part of the Prime Minister. She does not really grip Northern Ireland in the way that other Prime Ministers have done, including Tony Blair and John Major. She does not give it priority. It is no excuse to say that Brexit overwhelms her as it is overwhelming our whole government system. I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Bourne and Lord Duncan, for whom I have a great respect, will take this message back: Northern Ireland must always be on the Prime Minister’s mind. This is unfinished business and it is a really dangerous moment. The two major political parties are demonstrating a reckless political irresponsibility. It is no good them blaming each other. Quite honestly, both are to blame. Both leaderships are equally to blame. I say that to noble Lords from the DUP who are sitting in this Chamber as well. I get on very well with them as friends, but they have to sort it out. We need devolved government restored. Leadership needs to be restored in the Northern Ireland Office, in which I had the privilege to serve, and in No. 10 as well as in the major parties.

I wish the current talks well, but I urge the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister, through the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, that it is crucial to bring innovative proposals to these talks. I keep being told by leaders of the parties there that no fresh proposals are being put on the table. There is no proper guidance in those talks. You get views from one side of the argument and then put them to the other party and you find the middle point. That is how you negotiate. That is how we negotiated the 2007 settlement. That is how the Good Friday settlement was negotiated as well.

I am sorry for raising the passion of the debate, but there is a dangerous political vacuum, as the Victims’ Commissioner has herself pointed out recently and as we saw in the tragic assassination of Lyra McKee. She was a brave investigative journalist—one of the finest in modern times in Northern Ireland—who was gunned down by IRA dissidents who have marginal and isolated support but are nevertheless very dangerous, as she tragically found out.

We have seen contradictory statements from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I say that with no joy at all. I see it as my duty as a former Secretary of State, especially, to support her. But one minute we hear a statement on historical abuse cases and in another we hear that she wants to do something for victims of the legacy of the Troubles. The Government are completely failing one particular group for whom they made promises. I raised this in the House and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has raised it with some passion and conviction as well. This is a group of nearly 500 of the severely injured. Everyone knows who they are. They are represented by that admirable pressure group, the WAVE trauma group. They are very severely injured. I have cited cases in your Lordships’ House in past debates, but I will give one example. There is a woman who lost both her legs in 1972 who still does not have any kind of recognition. She has no pension, for which she and her colleagues in the WAVE trauma group have been campaigning. They are not asking for a lot—about £150 a week. They have never been able to earn over the course of their lives the kind of occupational pensions that people who have been in work can enjoy, because they have not been able to work. She cannot work.

This continues despite promises. I credit the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, with total support to the group when he was kind enough to meet them at my request relatively recently. They came across in their wheelchairs to lobby Parliament. Do we have to see them lobbying Parliament month after month with all the stress that that puts on them in order to get this House, the House of Commons and the Government to act? There is universal support for them. When I moved an amendment with cross-party support to a Northern Ireland Bill recently, it would have carried—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, for nodding in assent. He persuaded me to withdraw the amendment because he did not want the Bill to go back to the Commons and be delayed, so I withdrew it on the promise that the Government would legislate for it by the end of the summer. Will he give that assurance here tonight as well?

I hope that the Northern Ireland Office will speak with one voice, because I have heard reports of different views being given in Belfast from in London. I see nods across the Floor of the Chamber underlining that. There must be a total commitment to legislate for the severely injured. If the local parties will not get into government and do the job themselves, we must do it here and demonstrate to the people of Northern Ireland that we are on their side at least, even if their own elected representatives are not.

I ask for an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State and with the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, because we must see closure on this. We cannot keep saying that we are going to do something and nor can the Government without doing it. The Bill will go through both Houses to establish a pension in record time. There is no excuse because there is no serious business before either House at the moment, apart from Brexit, when that turns up or not.

In closing, I have a few points on the general picture. I remain suspicious of the implications of tax devolution. I know that it is in the legislation, but we have a United Kingdom that is deeply unbalanced in terms of its wealth. If Wales, the north-east of England, Scotland or Northern Ireland are not able to benefit from the redistributive effects of the 40% of GDP that is raised in the south-east of England, the unity of the UK is under threat, on top of the other threats that we face. I am really worried about it, especially against the background of austerity and big cuts in the Welsh Government’s budget, for example, and in other budgets of devolved legislatures over the last nine years.

There is unfinished business of devolution in England outside London. That is not sustainable and the Government need to address it. I recommend the Bill introduced to this House by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and the case made for it by the Constitution Reform Group, for whom he has been spokesperson, as I have, and which was chaired by the Marquess of Salisbury.

Devolution is here to stay. That is a great tribute to all who made it possible. The fact that it is now part of the constitutional architecture of the United Kingdom for good is very positive indeed.