Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:39 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 7:39 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys. This has been a good, friendly and respectful debate— until now, anyway, and after me is the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and my noble friend Lord McConnell would have liked to be here to take part, but unfortunately this debate coincides with a celebration in Holyrood of the 20 years of Scottish devolution, which is a pity. However, devolution in Scotland did not start 20 years ago. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, will remind us, after the Act of Union in 1707, because there was a recognition that Scotland had a separate legal system—something that has been maintained ever since—a Secretary for Scotland was created in 1707. Indeed, it was the Earl of Mar. It is a great pity that his descendant, the noble Countess, is not here today—it would show the whole lineage, all the way down.

In fact, there were Scottish Secretaries on and off for a while until, in 1885, the position of Scottish Secretary was recreated, becoming Secretary of State in the Cabinet in 1926. From then on, the functions of the Secretary of State—the functions now exercised by the Scottish Parliament—were carried out by one Secretary of State and three junior Ministers. That is astonishing. It was okay when it was Willie Ross in charge—he managed it well. There is the story of Frank McElhone, who, when he became Under-Secretary of State eventually got an audience with Willie Ross, great man that he was, and said, “Secretary of State, what do you want me to do?” to which Willie said, “You’ll do as you’re told”. And he did. I was going to say, “Ye’ll dae as yer telt”, but I thought I would say it in English so that others would understand.

There was no proper democratic accountability at that time. Those of us who were in the House of Commons will know that there was no real time for Scottish legislation—or indeed Welsh legislation when it was necessary, but particularly Scottish legislation. That is why some of us—Donald Dewar, Jim Boyack, my noble friends Lady Ramsay and Lady Adams, the noble Lord, Lord Elder, and many others—fought in the Labour campaign for a Scottish Assembly, as we called it. Eventually it became the campaign for a Scottish Parliament, of course.

Then we had the 1979 referendum, which we won, as my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench brilliantly said, by exactly the majority by which the leave campaign won. Of course, that was not considered a mandate for constitutional change and a Scottish Parliament, but now it seems that it is acceptable—to some. That was because of the George Cunningham 40% threshold. So devolution was strongly supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, by the trade unions and lots of others in civil society, but interestingly not at that time by the Conservatives, although the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, and others got behind it eventually, and it was not supported initially by the SNP.

From the 1997 referendum, of course, we got the first democratically elected Parliament in Scotland. I take issue with Winifred Ewing, a wonderful woman whom I greatly respect. She has done a lot for Scotland but when she said, as she took the Chair at Holyrood, “I declare Parliament reconvened”, it was not. It was the first democratically elected Scottish Parliament and to compare it with 1707, with all the Lairds who were in there and the undemocratic nature of that Parliament, was unfortunate. It was the first directly elected Scottish Parliament. Just at that time Salmond, wily old fish that he is, saw the opportunity of using devolution as a stepping stone or a slippery slope towards separation. My good friend the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who was here earlier, thought devolution was a bulwark against separation: the jury is not completely finished yet on the outcome of that, because we do not yet have separation.

My first point is that devolution and separation are completely different concepts. Some people confuse them accidentally, others confuse them deliberately, to confuse people. They are fundamentally different. Devolution implies remaining part of the United Kingdom. I will come back to that. Separation, with no disrespect to my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, means being separate. There is an argument for that. I never argue that Scotland is too small, too wee or too poor to be separate, if you want to do that, but, like others, I want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Devolution implies remaining part of the United Kingdom and separation implies breaking up.

We have had devolution for 20 years and I think that in Scotland there have been two phases. In the first, we co-operated very much with the Liberal Democrats. I see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and my noble friend Lord McConnell have recently been quoted talking about how they worked together in a coalition. That was an effective coalition: some Liberal Democrats might know that not all coalitions are quite as constructive and effective. We saw the smoking ban, which I campaigned for strongly as a member of Action on Smoking and Health, and we saw free care for the elderly—at least some on aspects of care—and a lot of advances in services because of devolution.

Then, in 2007, there was a change in how the Parliament operated. Salmond and Sturgeon have clearly and unashamedly made the Scottish Parliament their platform for separation. They are using it as a campaign tool to get separation. Remember I told noble Lords about Willie Ross and his three Under-Secretaries of State running the Scotland Office? They now have 12 Cabinet Ministers and 14 other Ministers—26 Ministers in the Scottish Parliament out of only 62 SNP MSPs. When you think that some of the others are PPSs, you realise the grip that the SNP now has. Then there are dozens of special advisers. Millions of pounds are being spent. I say to my good friend the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that some people in Scotland do not fully realise what is happening in Scotland at the moment. They are travelling around Scotland pursuing their case for independence, using everybody’s money, because it is not just Scottish taxpayers’ money. We pay more tax in Scotland now, but it is everybody’s money being spent to promote that case.

I want to deal with one or two other points that have come up. A number of Members have mentioned the electoral systems in Wales and in Scotland. There was supposed to be a review of the electoral system. My noble friends Lord Elder and Lady Ramsay will remember that that was one of the recommendations of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. No review has been undertaken and it is long overdue. I agree that to have two different kinds of elected Member is unfair. You have constituency Members working hard and list Members taking it easy. There is something else wrong with it as well. I was elected as a list Member doing very little—I was going to swear but I am not allowed to say “bugger all” in this place—and spending nothing, not a penny, in that campaign. That is how crazy the system is. I was top of the list in Lothian and the reason I got elected was that Labour lost two constituency seats and I just managed to scrape in at the bottom. I will say that I worked hard for the four years I was in the Scottish Parliament, but I could have got away with doing very little indeed.

Secondly, I am concerned that there is no revising procedure. We all thought—my noble friend Lady Ramsay will remember this—in the Scottish Constitutional Convention that the committee system, once we set it up, would act as a second look at legislation. It is just not working, and we need to review it. I am not suggesting that they should have a “House of Lairds” up there, but there needs to be some arrangement for scrutiny and we need to use it.

I will also mention the call for more powers. How many times do we hear that? Sturgeon and her lieutenants are saying it all the time, but they are unable to use the devolved powers for social security that they already have. They have headed the matter back to Westminster. That therefore needs very careful consideration. As someone else said, what we have seen in Scotland is not devolution but centralisation of not just the police force and fire brigade but many other things as well. Local government is also really suffering.

Others will touch on this, but we will regret moving out of the European Union. We could see the break-up of the United Kingdom. The case for an independent Scotland will grow and the case for a united Ireland will grow. It will be a terrible legacy for Cameron and May—Conservatives and, I am led to believe, unionists—to leave: architects of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Last among this miscellany is the question of the British Transport Police, which I address to my really good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank. How are we doing on that? It shows how devolution can be done in two different ways: a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way was to break up the British Transport Police, which the SNP was proposing. The right way was what I, the noble Lord and others here today strongly advocated: keeping the British Transport Police operating effectively and efficiently, as it is at the moment, but responsible to Holyrood for operations in Scotland and to Westminster for operations in the rest of the United Kingdom.

How do we explain the SNP success in Scotland? I am told that confession is good for the soul—I have not found that yet, but maybe I will get it eventually—and in this case it is because of the Labour Party’s failure on the constitution. We have not followed up devolution in the way that it should have been followed up. In particular, we have not understood what needs to be done for England and encouraged English people like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to look at England and find ways of giving power to its regions. I am not saying that it should be broken up, and there may be other ways of doing it. It is probably right that legislation be made on an all-English basis.