Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:53 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 6:53 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I remember very well 18 September 1997, when the referendum result was announced. The cracach were at the count in the College of Music and Drama. The rest of us—the workers—were at the Park Hotel. Tension mounted, because the yes vote was falling behind. Then the very last result was that Carmarthenshire had voted by 65.5% in favour of an assembly. That was 6,721 votes out of the well over 1 million cast altogether.

It was a consolation for the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, that it was as narrow as that. He was the chairman of the Just Say No campaign. For me, it was the end of a long campaign for devolution. My noble friend Lady Randerson referred to the Government of Wales Bill of 1967, presented in the House of Commons by Emlyn Hooson MP. Emlyn was a very good delegator. “Just draft a Government of Wales Bill for me, will you, Martin?” he said. That is how the Bill came into being. It was presented in this House by Lord Ogmore. It may interest the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and other noble Lords to know that the assembly I proposed was called the Senedd. Now, 50 years later, we are finally getting there—I have always been 50 years ahead of my time.

My next memory is of 26 May 1999, the day the Assembly opened. I was there as a guest and was in the Assembly chamber. I had been invited by my noble friend Lady Humphreys, a new Member, to look at her desk and all the accoutrements there. I noticed on the television in the chamber that the Queen had just stopped outside the building in her landau. I thought I had better get out of there, so I went through the door. There was a long lobby, which had been very full, but was now completely empty. I saw 150 metres of red carpet, with the Queen at the far end being greeted by Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the then convenor. I wondered what to do. Should I go left or right? There was no exit, but there was a little alcove. In the alcove was the chorus of the Welsh National Opera, who were to sing a specially composed piece as the Queen went past. I joined the basses. I held out my programme and, as the Queen went past, John Redwood had nothing on me and the passion with which I delivered that piece, I can tell you.

The Assembly grew in prestige and embedded itself in the national life of Wales. Other noble Lords have spoken of its achievements and I will not repeat them. What was important was that the elections were based on a form of proportionality. It was not the most satisfactory one but it was the result of a compromise, a deal, between Labour, who were all for first past the post, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, for us, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for Plaid Cymru. We had a degree of proportionality. Of course, this resulted in coalition Governments who were remarkably stable. Labour led every Administration and has continued to do so—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, that there should be a change—but Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru Ministers acting in coalition, separately and at different times have made very significant contributions. Kirsty Williams, the current Liberal Democrat Member of the Assembly Government, is certainly making a magnificent contribution.

In 2011, the confidence of the Welsh people in the new Assembly was shown by the two-thirds majority who voted in the national referendum in favour of full legislative powers. That is not finished. We need, and have always needed, to expand the numbers from 60 to 90. Indeed, the Assembly building was built with that capacity, just in case we ever get round to increasing the number of Members. Accountability in the Welsh Assembly is not as strong because of this. Some 40% of the Members are Ministers of one sort or another.

I turn to the present. At the moment, it is like a car crash. I do not know if noble Lords have ever been in a car crash, but I remember two in particular, which happened when I was driving on ice. You have no control; you cannot steer or brake. All you can do is wait for the bang. In one of those crashes I hit a line of fence posts, two of which went through the windscreen with sufficient power to whistle past my ear and go out through the back. They went all the way through the car and another came in from the side. The feeling you cannot control is how I feel at the moment, considering where we are in politics: how have we got here?

What contribution have the devolved Administrations been asked to make to the negotiations? After the 2016 referendum, a joint ministerial council was established—the JMC (EU Negotiations). Its terms of reference were to,

“seek to agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, Article 50 negotiations”.

That was before the withdrawal process had even begun. It had a few preliminary meetings but did not meet at all between February and October 2017. Article 50 was invoked without any attempt to develop a common UK approach. The devolved Administrations were ignored. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was published without consulting Cardiff and Edinburgh at all. There was no attempt to involve Members or officials from the devolved Administrations in the negotiating team. Protests from Mark Drakeford for Wales and Mike Russell for Scotland to David Davis, who was then trying to negotiate, were ignored and not replied to.

After considerable pressure, including from this House, the JMC (EU Negotiations) met in October 2017 and agreed that powers repatriated from Brussels would in devolved areas pass to the devolved Administrations, but that new “common frameworks” would be required to limit policy divergence in the UK. A new inter-ministerial group was created in February 2019 on the key areas of environment, food and rural affairs. The analysis we saw last April shows that the Government expect there to be 21 areas where legislative frameworks may be required, chiefly in agriculture, fisheries, health and food standards.

But has there been any agreement between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations? Not at all. Scotland refused legislative consent to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and has indicated it will withhold consent from the Trade Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and any other Brexit Bills, whenever they resume their stumbling progress. Two months ago, in March, Mike Russell, the Brexit chief in Scotland, said that,

“the Scottish Government is refusing to have any truck with the UK Government’s invented concept of the supposed needs of some non-existent ‘UK Single Market’”.

Noble Lords might think that there is a considerable amount of work to be done to get the Scots, and indeed the Welsh, on side. Never mind trade deals all around the world if Brexit goes through, with people shooting off to China or Australia; what about holding the United Kingdom together? I believe, and I have said in the House before, that Brexit means a united Ireland and an independent Scotland. The tectonic plates will move inexorably in that direction.

In Wales, there is particular concern about the loss of European structural and investment funds, which have been very important to Wales and made us net recipients of funds from Europe. The UK shared prosperity fund has been loudly trumpeted, but is it anything more than a name? Who is designing it? What are the criteria for eligibility? Will it be GVA per head, as now? The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, pointed out that Wales has the lowest GVA per head at I think £16,000, as opposed to the English £27,000. Will it be the regional human poverty index? Will it be measures of disposable income? In particular, how will this shared prosperity fund be shared? As a devolved matter, will it be administered by a Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish Administration? If we crash out on 31 October, will this shared prosperity fund suddenly come into being on 1 November?

When you step out of the car crash and see the remains all around you, you look for help and guidance. Where will we find the vision, leadership and energy to deal with these internal pressures and tensions—never mind foreign trade—to manufacture the economic frameworks, to design the shared prosperity fund, and to reconcile the devolved Administrations and their Parliaments, which have been disgracefully overlooked in the negotiations? Will we look to Mr Nigel Farage and his cronies to provide that leadership, vision and reconciliation? I do not think so. He said this morning that he is looking forward to returning to the pub next week, where no doubt he will hold court about the great betrayal. There is the whole raft of Tory aspirants to leadership running around presenting their wares to their members. Which one of them, still declaring his or her eternal support for Theresa May while manning the telephone banks, has the courage and the ability to do what is so necessary for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The debate is about the role of the devolved Administrations in the governance of this country. All I can say is, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”