Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:52 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 8:52 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate, not least because of the wide range of contributions from noble Lords who have actively participated in all aspects of devolution across the United Kingdom. I join other noble Lords in commending the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for setting the tone at the start of the debate as a celebration of devolution and an invitation for an honest appraisal of what has gone right, what has gone wrong and where we are heading. All the contributions have reflected that spirit. In some ways, I feel I have a walk-on part compared with the substantial participation of other noble Lords.

I have been a passionate home-ruler all my life and joined the Liberal Party at the age of 17 partly with a mission to try to secure a Parliament for Scotland. When I was leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats between 1988 and 1992, I was able to lead the party in the Scottish Constitutional Convention which was preceded by the reassertion of the Claim of Right which declared that it was basically the right of the Scottish people to decide how they should be governed. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that that of course is the right to be independent but it is also the right to choose not to be independent and to find some other means of governing within the framework of the United Kingdom. So far, that is what the people of Scotland have chosen to do. I am proud of the fact that I am the fourth signatory to A Claim of Right for Scotland after Harry Ewing, David Steel—now the noble Lord, Lord Steel—and Donald Dewar. It was a particularly proud day, because we were making a declaration that we were about to do something, not just talk about it.

It is worth recording that the Scottish Constitutional Convention was derided and sneered at when it was set up. It was considered to be a waste of time by opposition parties frustrated by defeat in the election. We were frustrated by our defeat but it was anything but a waste of time—a great deal of work was carried out. I was proud to be part of the first half of it, for the first three years, during which time we agreed that we were campaigning for a Parliament, not an Assembly; we were campaigning for all the powers of the Scottish Office, at least, if not more; and we agreed, with some degree of argument, about having a voting system that would be representative of the people of Scotland. I commend the Labour Party for recognising that that was necessary if we were to secure the unity of the people of Scotland behind the convention, given the problems that we had had in 1978.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, said that fiscal issues were not thought about. They absolutely were, and indeed we worked out proposals. I have to be honest and say that Donald Dewar renewed his passport simply to go to Germany to discuss the revenue powers of the Länder. He became committed to what was subsequently delivered by Gordon Brown only a few years ago but who had vetoed those proposals when they came from the convention. Time moves on and people change their minds. We were there first.

I should like to comment on something that has been mentioned in relation to the Welsh Assembly. We agreed a proportional system—the d’Hondt system. Those of us who had fought hard to get agreement on PR did not feel that we could dig our heels in for a particular system. The single transferable vote is an electoral system made in Britain, whereas the d’Hondt system, as its name implies, was made in Belgium. I argue that the time is now right to consider for both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament the single transferable vote system, not just because it is a bit more proportional, although that is one reason, but because it creates one category of Members. I think that two categories of Members create a problem.

I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that it necessarily means that list Members do not work hard. Some of them have an obligation to cover nine constituencies, particularly if their party has only the list Member and no constituency Members. It depends on the circumstances, but I think that it would be much better if every Member were elected under the same voting system. I get the feeling that we are moving towards a consensus on that and I hope that it might be brought about.

Other speakers have given many examples of the achievements of the devolved Administrations in a whole variety of areas, so I shall not reiterate them, but they include social issues, the smoking ban, land reform, and so on. They speak for themselves. Mistakes have been made and things have not always been done properly, but the reality was that we had the space, the time and the means to do things that, under the unitary Parliament at Westminster, simply were not possible and for which there was no democratic accountability to the people. That is a vast transformation that has genuinely enriched our democracy, even if there is an awful lot of work in progress still to be completed.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in passing reference to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said that he did not particularly address the question of a second Chamber, but he has now done so. Quite sensibly, he is starting off small in the sense of suggesting that maybe it should be an indirectly elected second Chamber, drawn from councils and other bodies across Scotland or Wales. There are good examples of where a second Chamber would have been beneficial to the Scottish Parliament—the committees have not always worked. I suggest, for example, that police reform might not have happened in the way it did had we had a second Chamber. Certainly the named person scheme would not have got into the trouble it did if we had had a second Chamber. I suspect that some of the arguments over the withdrawal of corroboration might also have found a different venue. The merits of having at least a second look at legislation before it is implemented are worthy of consideration; I suggest that is something we could look at further.

Many people have spoken with first-hand knowledge of the Welsh Assembly. I am delighted that the Welsh Assembly has been allowed to grow up, having been at the beginning little more than a glorified council; it is right and proper that it has done so. But I would support those who say that 60 Members is no longer adequate. There is almost a critical minimum for any legislature below which it cannot function: it cannot man the committees or carry out the work. So that is a perfectly legitimate argument. Of course, having more Members would be contentious as it would cost more, so the necessity for it needs to be properly explained.

We have had, and will continue to have, regular debates on the crisis in Northern Ireland. I have contributed to those and will not repeat much of what I have said before, which has been eloquently said by others. I hope that the events in Northern Ireland have got to a point where everybody now recognises that what was already a crisis is now a crisis reaching dangerous proportions and needs to be addressed. I hope the House will forgive me for saying that one change came about through the local elections, where a strong swing to the Alliance Party—contrary even to its best hopes and expectations—can legitimately be interpreted as the expression of at least a section of people in Northern Ireland that they did not want the peripheral extremes to be in control but wanted to pull back to a rational, common-sense, centre. I am proud that our sister party is part of that. We should not overplay that hand but, equally, I hope that other parties will not underestimate the significance of that development. It is significant, and we will see whether it might even be followed through in the coming two or three days.

I echo the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about lack of leadership. I do not want to go into whether this is the fault of the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach or the Secretary of State; it is everybody’s fault. Somebody somewhere has to show an understanding of leadership. This is not just a Northern Ireland question. What we have now is a collision of nationalisms, which threatens to explode the United Kingdom. Let us be honest: Brexit is English nationalism, which is in collision with Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism and Irish nationalism. I have much respect for the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who is the most moderate, constructive and sensible nationalist I know, but nationalism can lead to destructive extremes; that is all I wish to say. Therefore, I want people to realise that we need to pull this back. My belief is that, if we do not stop Brexit—certainly if it goes ahead with any kind of hard edge—we will not save the United Kingdom. It is not as clear-cut as people think. There is an idea that Scotland will just vote for independence tomorrow, but we all know that it is more complicated than that. It is worse, because Scotland may not vote for independence but will fulminate because it cannot get into the EU and is stuck in the UK. It makes everybody more destructively angry that their democratic system has comprehensively failed to deliver anything that takes the country forward in a constructive direction.

As a state, the United Kingdom is facing an existential crisis of our own making and we have to confront it. At the same time, I accept that, however untidy devolution has been, trying to bring decision-making closer to the people has been a positive thing. What we need now is a comprehensive review of what we have learned. I do not want it to be uniformly applied, but we should take the best bits and cross-fertilise them. What Wales has learned can teach Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, and all these lessons should somehow be put into the mix.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Purvis about having a constitutional convention of some kind, but I also agree about having an English convention. Maybe we need a British convention and an English convention running simultaneously to try to address these issues. Local government underpins all democracy and it is being systematically destroyed by all Governments. The freezing of council tax and the creation of the poll tax were two pretty lousy systems of financing local government. Then, local councils were not even able to operate them effectively.

As the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, said, the Scottish Government have consistently had additional money from the United Kingdom, but have used it to finance the campaign for independence, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, while squeezing local government to death. I will give one simple, practical example. Teachers have been in dispute with the Scottish Government, and the Government have agreed a 3% pay rise, even though they have not finally accepted it. They have told the councils which employ the teachers that they will fund only a 2% pay rise. What kind of Government does that, knowing perfectly well that these councils are struggling to provide their basic services? The negotiation was done between the Government and the teaching unions, yet it is the councils that actually employ the teachers. That is a fundamental miscarriage of any kind of good governance.

Devolution was not only desirable but necessary. If it had not happened, we would have reached a crunch point earlier. However, we are where we are. I suggest that the recommendations about constitutional conventions should be taken on. There should be a proper, objective overview with not only all the political parties but all civic institutions, which are not necessarily politicised, taking part and trying to come up with a viable, workable system that will provide a sound basis for the future and which can be written, if not in stone, in some form of constitution that is a little less woolly than the British one, so that it might last for decades to come. Devolution is something to celebrate but, against the background of Brexit, it will not be enough to hold our country together.