Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:07 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 9:07 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, the conclusion of a debate of this kind leaves those who stand here feeling that their thunder has been stolen and their diamonds have been mined. With sleep making the eyelids ever heavier, they do not want to contribute to that process any further. To be placed as I am among four Scots—squeezed by the Scots, which many people would give money for—seems to leave me needing to add the music of the valleys and seashores of the Principality, as leaven in the lump.

I will begin by taking Members of your Lordships’ House to south-west Wales, where there is a tiny, tiny village called Betws. It is near Ammanford and there is a bridge linking the two. The bridge has a signpost, which points in two directions. One side says “Betws” and the other “a’r byd”—the rest of the world. The choice that devolution offered was precisely between those two possibilities. One was a way back to the narrow, parochial living of a tiny place such as Betws. The other was a springboard to get on in relationships with the rest of the world. We could remain shut up in our little corners, or feel free to build bridges with the rest of the world.

Far from throwing Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales back on themselves, it seems to me that the settlements we are commemorating today were intended to be springboards towards the rest of the world. Trade, culture, creative activity, tourism and so much else would ensure that each country had the possibility of reaching out beyond itself to London, of course, but also to Brussels and, as was always supposed and hoped for, through Brussels to the furthest ends of the world. Would devolution have happened at all, I wonder, if the European Union had not been the context within which we sought to achieve it? What role did the EU play in creating the conditions out of which we could move in this direction?

It has been said by many noble Lords in the course of the debate that devolution has come in different ways. It has had distinctive characteristics in each of the nations where it was established. Just last week my noble friend Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale gave us a graphic picture of the heady and troubled days of devolution in its first beginnings in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, as many have said, the Good Friday agreement got things launched. Wales, in comparison, seemed to totter awkwardly as it found its way forward. The people’s endorsement for it was so feeble, the powers granted to it so slim, the support for it from Members of this Parliament were only lukewarm and it did not immediately capture the electorate’s imagination.

With all these things in mind, it is important to recognise the hurdles that have been overcome. The Minister has been generous in letting us into the change that all this has effected in himself. I know that, through him, we can see others for whom similar movements of the spirit have occurred. It is important to recognise the persistence displayed as this new way of doing things has settled in.

Now we dare to declare that devolution, despite its slow beginnings, is here to stay. We have heard Member after Member say that. Much has happened: elections, the extension of powers, Acts of this Parliament, changes in Government, coalitions of interest, custom and expectation have all played their part. All this has embedded the still new arrangements—it is only 20 years—firmly in the minds of every part of our United Kingdom. It has given a sharper edge, which many have referred to, to the thorny English question, which one day soon we will all have to deal with.

I say that this is embedded, and so it is, but last year’s battles over the infamous Clause 11 of the then European Union (Withdrawal) Bill revealed what might constitute a fatal flaw in the way we do things. The United Kingdom Government sought to repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster, including those vested at that time in the devolved Governments, without any kind of consultation with those bodies. The Scottish Government did not hesitate to call it “a power grab”. Northern Ireland, already isolated from the debate by the regrettable breakdown of its power-sharing Government, had just to watch as a spectator. But Wales, which I believe was already far ahead of the game with the publication of its splendid policy paper Securing Wales’ Future, which we all ought to read, protested furiously. So too did the Bar Council, the Hansard Society, the Law Society, the Constitution Committee of this House, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.

After long debate, and in the end without the consent of the Scottish Government, the ill-fated clause was entirely rewritten. Existing powers would largely continue to be exercised in the devolved Governments. We have heard mention of that. We were told that the Joint Ministerial Council would be beefed up and oversee the management of all policy areas with a UK-wide sphere of operation. Frameworks would be defined and drawn up to manage the coming into being of a United Kingdom common market. With these significant and radical alterations, the Bill was eventually passed.

I believe that the jury is still out on the JMC. I have seen reports and minutes of meetings, and I am persuaded that there has been progress, but it all feels rather tentative. I think that it got five out of 10 for its work when we were committedly in the European Union. It remains to be seen how it will operate, as has been alluded to in the debate, once we are out of the European Union, where there will not be that mollifying, contextual element to modify and moderate our debates together—a backcloth against which to look at the pictures we want to explore.

Last year’s Bill was the first time I ever stood at the Dispatch Box. I was quaking like I don’t know what, but it was awful. I mention the Bill and Clause 11 not to rehearse a sorry story from the past but to point to a potentially fatal flaw in the whole process of devolution. While so much work has been and is being done in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to turn policies into action and to create a public ethos of trust and ownership of their still-newish institutions, they have to contend with a Westminster mindset that has not yet absorbed devolution into the fibre of its being. Unthinkingly, insensitively, sometimes cold-heartedly, blindly and deaf to the cries of dismay generated, measures can be brought forward which, if implemented, would strike the brave vessels of devolution below the waterline. It can sometimes feel like insouciance on steroids. This lack of awareness on the part of the parent body is the biggest danger to the future of devolution. I dare to suggest that unless and until there is an awakening of conscience on the part of this Westminster Parliament, the devolved Governments will go on harbouring at best suspicions and at worst paranoid feelings of possible betrayal.

I am aware that while standing across from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, I am not speaking to the person who embodies the dangers I am talking about. A more reasonable man you could not get. However, I believe that we deal tangentially, sometimes at arm’s length, and without feeling for the regions that are governed in this devolved way.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, has written about the relationship between principles and practice. I hope she will not look askance at me if I invoke her work to underline a fundamental point in today’s debate. The laudable efforts to bring new institutions of government into being, the creation of a new culture of regional power-holding, the evolution from a mother-child relationship, or even a master-vassal relationship, so that it becomes one between siblings—a relationship built on reciprocity and trust—is a far more challenging affair than the mere passing of a piece of legislation, or the mouthing of honeyed words.

I was part of the leadership of a consultation to develop the relationship of Methodist churches in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana, which had been daughter churches to the British Methodist Church, so that they could become sister churches. I am aware of the sorts of issues raised in those kinds of discussions. We sat around a table for days on end working things out and establishing not only that we passed over a dowry and did certain physical things, but that we heard each other, understood each other and saw clearly the issues that made each side work and which they were looking to take forward into the future. In terms of developing the relationship between this Parliament and the devolved parliaments, I am asking for something along those lines. Subconsciously, this Parliament can still be wedded to a now outdated way of conducting our affairs. We need to wake up to this challenge, and soon.

I started in Betws. So too did Ivor Richard, who for a while was Leader of this House. He started in that tiny village which, until 1892, you had to reach by mountains or very complicated roadways—tracks. Once the bridge was in and you could cross that bridge, the world was at your fingertips and at your disposal. Ivor Richard was our envoy to the United Nations, a Commissioner in Brussels, Leader of this House and the convenor of the commission that made recommendations about the development of the Welsh Government. He certainly recommended 80 rather than 60 Members—the only recommendation that yet awaits implementation. Betws was in the genes of Ivor Richard, but he was a man of far wider sensibilities in everything he did. I believe that it is up to us to see devolution not as a paternalistic giving-away of power to a child who has not yet learned to walk, but as creating a partner—a sister parliament and collaborator—in the great exercise of rebuilding governance fit for a country like ours.

Our commemoration today is very apposite. I am delighted at the way it was introduced and it has a star-studded cast of people, most of whom had a hands-on relationship to the developments. I feel like a black hole in such a constellation. The achievements of the last 20 years will prove to have been the harbingers of a reimagined, reconfigured model for our entire national constitutional and corporate life. I, for one, cannot wait to see that new shape come into being.