Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:27 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 8:27 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. Her contribution reflects a realistic debate that has been sweetened by a courtesy. The tone was set by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who is greatly respected in this House. The manner in which he introduced this debate has been greatly appreciated by all sides. Even the contribution of my friend the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, from the Labour Benches, had that element of humour which he brought to the Scottish Parliament while I served there with him. I have to say that I admire his campaigning technique, which reminded me a little of Gilbert and Sullivan’s description of this House. He,

“Did nothing in particular. And did it very well”.

He was an active Member of the Parliament and brought great humour to it. Humour is a major part of Scottish politics in particular. Colleagues who have succeeded me in the Scottish Parliament tell me that there is less humour in that institution than there was a few years ago, which is a shame.

One hundred and thirty years ago, in April 1889, the Liberal MP for Caithness moved a home rule for Scotland resolution in the other place. That resolution in 1889 was:

“That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that arrangements be made for giving to the people of Scotland, by their representatives in a National Parliament, the management and control of Scottish affairs”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/4/1889; col. 74.]

Making his case, he said:

“Everybody, even old Tories on the other side, must admit that some change is necessary. Then what is the remedy to be? It must, I think, take the form of devolution”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/4/1889; col. 71.]

He added:

“The Scotch are a separate nation; we have our separate laws, our separate methods of jurisprudence and administration, and our special technical language, which English lawyers cannot understand”.

I am not sure if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, will concur or disagree with that. He went on:

“Now, is it not far better that our business should be transacted by a body which has some knowledge of these matters than by others who frankly admit they have no knowledge at all on the subject?”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/4/1889; col. 73.]

Over that 100-odd years, many with limited knowledge thwarted the case for devolution. But he said something to them in the debate that has a degree of prescience:

“In moving the Resolution that stands in my name let me say at once that that Resolution does not mean separation. I have no desire to repeal the Union between England and Scotland, and I think that Union has been mutually beneficial—a good thing for Scotland, but a better thing for England”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/4/1889; cols. 68-69.]

I greatly enjoyed the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Bew—I am a great admirer of his—but I feel he perhaps made a subtly flawed argument in suggesting that the whole argument for devolution for Scotland was predicted on a defence against nationalism. Nor do we see it as always benign—that devolution can automatically, de facto, bring about improved services.

I am a Borderer. I was born in a town that changed hands 13 times between England and Scotland. I represented the constituency where the River Tweed has its source and the border between the two countries. The common riding season is coming up in the Borders, and I will make speeches commemorating the conflicts of 500 years ago. It is now part of our folk memory, but it did not undermine the case—as my noble friend Lady Randerson said—that, where practicable and beneficial for decision-making, it is better if that decision-making can be closer to the people affected by it, who then have an opportunity through good governance to hold to account those who make the decision. That might mean that bad, flawed or ineffective decisions are made. As others have said—the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Adams—it may create a platform for those who wish to see it ultimately lead to independence. Liberals and many in Labour and other parties have seen devolution as a platform for better governance within the union. We are not naive to think that devolution will simply be the end result. If that were the case, the experiment in Canada would have stopped many years ago with Québec and the experiments of other decentralised countries would not have delivered the more local decision-making that is appropriate.

I was present in the General Assembly Hall for the convening of the new Parliament—a modern Parliament with much greater gender balance—and in the gallery for the royal opening. I was witness to the emotion of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in the Chair and exhilarated by the soaring oratory of Donald Dewar as the new First Minister. I was subsequently proud to serve in this new, modern legislature based on such old, liberal foundations and principles. I was also the last parliamentarian for the now abolished constituency of Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale—in my humble opinion as poetic a constituency name as ever there was. It is a bit of a mouthful for some, though: on a visit to Boston I was introduced to the members of the Massachusetts state assembly by the Speaker as, “Jimmy Purve from Twiddle, Ettick and Louder”.

Having served in the Parliament and then chaired the devo plus campaign, I got to know the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who was then not only a supporter of devolution but recognised the need to enhance that devolution to strengthen it and make it more sustainable. That devo-plus campaign was successfully led to a cross-party consensus via the Smith commission for further reforms.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I have seen devolution in these last 20 years broadly in two halves. The first half made the case to a sometimes confused electorate what devolution was and the distinction between an MP and an MSP. There were many disputes, teething problems and difficulties, not least the construction of a building to house this group of MSPs. My predecessor Ian Jenkins and my neighbouring MSP Euan Robson successfully made sure that new devolution would deliver for an area such as the Scottish Borders—a large part of Scotland that had been neglected by distant Governments. Ian helped persuade Jim Wallace—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace—and others to devolve government staff and offices in Scotland. The pensions agency was relocated out of Edinburgh into Tweedbank in the Scottish Borders. Euan Robson was active and made sure that EU structural funds—so critical to investment and infrastructure in the Borders—were protected. I was able to work very closely with Frances Renton in Berwickshire, Alec Nichol in Kelso, Jim Hume in Selkirkshire and Graham Garvey in Tweeddale—local councillors with a team of local representatives and their Member of the Scottish Parliament acting collectively for the area—and we were able to deliver.

Above the desk in my office I have a poster from the Scotsman newspaper that I nicked from a newsagent in the Royal Mile on the day we got the Borders rail link approach through. The headline was, “Borders rail link gets the green light”. I was able to persuade Nicol Stephen, the Transport Minister, that reconstituting the Borders Railway—which has been a phenomenal success—would be a priority of a Scottish Government, when it had always languished down the line in a UK-wide infrastructure programme. It was the decision-making closer to the people that was necessary.

When Heriot-Watt proposed leaving the Borders campus and removing higher education from the entire Borders, I chaired a local campaign group and, with others, persuaded it to stay and get funding for higher and further education, which was a priority of the then Scottish Government.

These are just two examples of which I am proud, but others have mentioned how the Welsh Administration were able to respond to foot and mouth in the early days. In a Scottish context, as Minister, Ross Finnie was able to respond from a position much closer to the farmers at that critical time. Indeed, for many people in rural Scotland and Wales who were sceptical about devolution, it was perhaps the response to the foot and mouth crisis that showed the benefit of having representatives closer to them.

Other noble Lords have mentioned the decisions on plastic bags, smoking and public health, the abolition of tuition fees and free personal care. There are elements of Lib Dem achievements there, working in partnership with others. Look also at PR for local government, and the ultimately successful campaigns for votes at 16. There have been good elements of devolution.

The problem, however, is the second half of this 10 years, where devolution seems to have stopped in Edinburgh. The new and greatly enhanced powers of the Scottish Parliament have stayed with the Scottish Government and Executive. We have seen powers stripped away from the health boards and centralised in Edinburgh; the removal of local enterprise companies, now based in Edinburgh; and the removal of the local tourism boards, now based in Edinburgh. We have seen a council tax freeze that, although popular with some, ultimately strips powers from local authorities, meaning that fiscal powers in Scotland are now primarily in Edinburgh. I have to say that the Liberals were the only ones who stood against the creation of Police Scotland, which now others regret, because powers have been centralised, away from the local police boards.

As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, indicated, this all added to a far more dominant Executive, with a large Cabinet and ministerial aides. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, indicated, part of the design of the Parliament was that it would have strong committees which would fill the dual roles of pre and post-legislative scrutiny. But the reluctance to do what the House of Commons has done—to have directly elected committee convenors to give an independence to committees—means that the institution has now become dominated by an Executive. And when that Executive have as their raison d’être independence, it is perhaps no surprise.

I wish to touch on the wider context that colleagues have mentioned: the asymmetrical element of devolution across the United Kingdom. Liberals argued for the Scottish Parliament but, at the same time, for the United Kingdom to also be reformed. The continuing difficulty of the UK Government also being the Government of England, and a limited English votes for English laws approach and the piecemeal, top-down, selective approach for regional and city devolution, means that that asymmetry has become even more pronounced.

Little has been said of London in the contributions to the debate. Devolution was for not just the nations but for the capital city. It is interesting that, in many respects, devolution is thought about only for Wales and Scotland, or in relation to the challenges ahead for Northern Ireland. However, for the capital and other cities, it is worth referencing.

The Minister mentioned an intergovernmental review, which is welcome. It was a consistent element of both the Silk and Smith processes that this would be carried out, but it will prove insufficient if it is simply about internal government co-operation or consultation. As the Minister said, we have seen how sketchy the Trade Bill has been without a proper structured process which other institutions in this Parliament can then hold to account. Simply the Executive dealing with other Executives, without parliamentary scrutiny of that process, would be insufficient.

That is why we on these Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and other like-minded colleagues, have been arguing—as I did when I called for a British constitutional convention in my Private Member’s Bill two Sessions ago—that part of this consideration should be that this House becomes a federal Chamber; a modern House of union. That is not necessarily a brand new idea. We can refer to the 1918 Speaker’s commission, which concluded that this House would better be served if it was an indirectly elected Chamber of those from Wales, Scotland and the regions of England. That may well be the glue that this rather fractious union needs.

To conclude, incremental devolution and piecemeal asymmetry have brought about a far better system of government now than we had prior to devolution, and many people need to be commended for that progress. Many have served in those institutions who perhaps would never have wanted to be in the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or indeed would ever have been elected to them. Systems of proportional representation have been problematic, and to have the single transferable vote system all round would be far preferable. Nevertheless, we are where we are. But to get to where we want to be—to a more united kingdom—will require a more federal approach.

Dr Clark, the MP for Caithness, was right in 1889. The union has been mutually beneficial, but its continuing benefit will be if we see either Brexit or no Brexit as the necessity for reform, to modernise. I am deeply proud of the small part I have played, as the last Member for the beautiful area of Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale.