Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 22nd May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Bryan of Partick Baroness Bryan of Partick Labour 6:45 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I very much welcome the opportunity to mark this historic moment, and I hope my voice will allow me to do so.

Looking back over 20 years of the Scottish Parliament gives us a reasonable perspective from which to consider the impact it has had. In the first Parliament, the Labour Party did its best to achieve equal representation of women by twinning the first past the post constituencies to ensure that 50% of its candidates were women. Even without the same level of commitment from the other parties, 37% of MSPs in the first Parliament were women. To put this in context, more women were elected on that one day than had been elected as MPs from Scotland in the House of Commons since 1918.

There has been much to celebrate but I share the worries of others, particularly about the increase in government centralisation at the expense of local government. In Scotland this centralisation includes police, fire and rescue and now schools. There has been a lack of courage to tackle some of the big problems, such as child poverty and falling life expectancy in some of our cities.

The groundwork for the new Scottish Parliament had of course been done by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which spent much time trying to define the areas of competence that should be retained by the United Kingdom. They included defence, foreign affairs, central economic and fiscal responsibilities, social security and immigration. It gave the Scottish Parliament powers in relation to the Scottish economy and business, health, education, social welfare and the legal system. What this left out were issues where the European Union had primacy, such as the customs union, the single market—including procurement and competition rules—environmental issues, agriculture, fisheries and consumer protection.

Without the EU’s regulations covering the whole UK, the 1998 Act would have had to specify which of those powers were to be retained and which were to be devolved. The discussion would have moved quickly to seeing the need for a cross-territorial body where the voices of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies could be heard. From there, it is likely that we would have been discussing the possibility of federalism.

While we are marking 20 years of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and seeing changes in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is an opportune moment to consider the constitution of the UK as a whole and how it has been affected by devolution. Since 1999, there have been a series of changes, with more powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. This did not stop in 1998.

As mentioned, across England, there are now nine metro mayors—all of them men—the London Assembly, police and crime commissioners, city deals, unitary authorities, metropolitan districts, county councils, district councils, London boroughs and, of course, the City of London. Since 2015, we have also had English votes for English laws. I appreciate that we do not necessarily want a one-size-fits-all approach, but we can probably accept that we have gone too far the other way.

The much-used quote from Ron Davies—that devolution is a process, not an event—has been proved right. The new powers gained by the Scottish Parliament over the years were not in response to any problem with process, or due to the overwhelming demand from the electorate. Rather, they were a response to political problems. So it happened that more powers were devolved in 2012, when some of the original powers had never actually been used and, in 2016, the Scotland Act introduced extensive new powers when some of the powers provided in the 2012 Act had not even come into effect. We cannot just keep adding to the list of devolved powers without stopping to think of the impact on the UK as a whole.

Whatever the outcome of the withdrawal from the EU turns out to be, there is a need to look at how the parliaments, assemblies and regions of England interact with each other. The aim should be to promote a way of working that is not competitive but co-operative, and where cross-territorial issues can be discussed in an open, transparent and accountable forum, rather than being confined to intergovernmental or joint ministerial meetings.

In our devolved arrangements, we have the basis to give us the shape of a federal UK. I would hesitate to become involved in the discussion over the representation of English regions. Instead, I bow to Billy Bragg, who suggests that the European Parliament constituencies could be used to enable regional representation. Common interests will be found across borders between Scotland and the north of England. Rural communities, fishing communities and industrial centres will all find areas of shared interests and work together to improve their sectors. Such an arrangement would enable the redistribution of wealth throughout the UK, and relationships between the parliaments and assemblies would be based on partnership not hierarchy. I hope noble Lords will agree with me that this House could usefully be replaced by an elected Senate of the nations and regions.