HL Deb 12 December 1973 vol 347 cc1157-76

2.50 p.m.

LORD BEAUMONT OF WHITLEY rose to call attention to the Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution 1969–73; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, I should like to express the feelings of gratitude that all your Lordships must have to the members of the Royal Commission on the Constitution who toiled so long and so well. We know on these Benches, from the frequent and sorely missed absences of my noble friend Lord Foot, how much work they did, and we are grateful. We are delighted that the noble Lords, Lord Kilbrandon and Lord Crowther-Hunt, are able to speak to-day in the debate, and are sad that the late Lord Crowther should not still be with us. We are thankful because, after all, we have two Reports for the price of one—at least two Reports for the price of one if one analyses them. We have some very important volumes of evidence, to which I shall be returning later, and a number of research papers, each of which would be worth a debate in its own right, and one or two of which are extremely important indeed. I should not like it to be thought that the criticism which my speech will make on one particular aspect of this Report in any way detracts from our gratitude for, and admiration of, the work of the Commission.

My Lords, there are two objects in calling this debate at this moment on this subject. First, we believe it right that there should be a preliminary airing of a tremendously important subject. Now that the debate over Europe is, with due respect to Mr. Peter Shore, more or less over, this debate and subject will become more and more important and will be the main constitutional one in forthcoming years. Secondly, we unashamedly wish to make a political point. We do not believe that either of the other two Parties will move on this matter, and we wish publicly to nail our colours to the mast. For that reason, we make no apology whatsoever for what has been described in some cases as an unduly early moment of discussion on this Report.

The Party which I have the honour to represent has been working on this subject for years, both during the sitting of the Kilbrandon Commission, and since. We believe that if other people have not been paying as much attention to this subject as we have, it is not necessarily a good thing, and it is largely because they know that for their Parties it is one of the hottest of hot potatoes. The Liberal record on this subject, if not impeccable, is at least of considerable standing and importance. We have stood for Home Rule for Wales and Scotland of some kind since at least Asquith in 1918. We have been working on the details in the years between. The Scottish Liberal Party, the Welsh Liberal Party, the Northern Ireland Liberal Party, the English Liberal Party and Mr. Jeremy Thorpe in person, have given five lots of evidence to the Commission.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? He has mentioned the Common Market. I wonder whether he would care to answer a question which has always puzzled me about the attitude of the Liberal Party in this respect. How do they reconcile their support for devolution—the noble Lord has just said that they support devolution—with their attitude to the E.E.C.? How do they, at one and the same time, support devolution in Great Britain, while supporting the idea that Great Britain should hand over some of her sovereign powers to a European Parliament?


My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness might wait until I am more than two minutes into my speech and have raised the subject, which I am obviously going to do before intervening. This did not arise from anything that I said. Of course I will deal with that point and explain exactly why I think that going into Europe and devolution are two parts of the same coin and must happen at the same time. But I will come to that in due course.

I do not therefore want to do a tour d'horizon of the whole Report; it would be a mammoth task. I want to concentrate on one major point. Incidentally, I want to ask the Government two simple questions. I have not given them notice of them because I know what the answers are. The two simple questions are: what are they going to do about the Report and when are they going to do it? I know perfectly well that the answers are, "nothing" and "never". The reasons for this are simple, because there is a tremendous interest in the status quo in both the Labour and Conservative Parties, and, indeed, in Parliament as such, and it would be foolish for any of us to deny this. This subject is as revolutionary and explosive for the future of the Parliament in this country—and I do not dodge this issue —as anything since the Treaty of Rome or the Guy Fawkes plot.

Our position is simple: we agreed with the analysis contained in the Majority Report to the extent that: Government is remote and insufficiently sensitive to the views and feelings of the people. We do not feel that the implications are followed through by the Majority Report, but we endorse the belief expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, and Professor Peacock, in their Memorandum of Dissent when they say that the necessary reforms should have three main objectives: first, to counter the decline they consider has taken place this century in the extent to which the British people govern themselves; secondly, to reduce the present excessive burdens on the institutions of Central Government; thirdly, to provide adequate means for the redress of individual grievances. That is the diagnosis. What is the cure? Considering that we disagree with every single member of the Commission about the ultimate solution, it is amazing how much we agree almost entirely on a great many of the premises and the intermediate points. I understand that it was accepted by everybody on the Commission—and members of the Commission may correct me if this is wrong—that if Scotland and Wales could be dealt with in isolation (that is, without thinking about what you did about England, the regions or anything else) there would be no doubt that you would go for legislative devolution.

The trouble begins when one comes to consider the relationship with England and the relationship with the Provinces in England. We agree with that legislative devolution. The snag, according to the Minority Report, and according to some other members of the Commission, which we entirely accept, is that every citizen must be given similar rights. It would be unjust to give the Scots and the Welsh power in their own Parliaments and over England, but English people power only over the English Parliament and not the Scots and Welsh Parliament. I think we would all agree with this; I do not much mind; we are used to being ruled by the Scottish, Welsh and Irish. In this Chamber alone on the Front Bench, the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, is I believe a Bruce Pryce from Glamorgan; the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, is a McPherson of Kirgussie; and the noble Baroness, Lady Tweedsmuir, is a Thomson of Aberdeen with overtones of Grant and Buchan. The noble Lords, Lord Colville of Culross, Lord Polwarth, Lord Limerick, Lord Gowrie and Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal are led of all things by a Hennessy of Balymacmay. Very nice, too! We do not complain; we are not worried; we are very happy that this should happen. Basically we agree with the Commission on this point.

Legislative devolution for Scotland and Wales is desirable; uniformity of political rights is desirable. What is missing seems to us to be the logical conclusion: that there should be legislative devolution for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England. I am delighted that in the course of this debate the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, is to speak. I have not been talking about Northern Ireland, and I am not going to talk about it in my speech because, in view of the present circumstances, this is a rather different situation.

Let us examine why no one came out in favour of the Federal solution. Well, you can answer that only by looking at the Report and seeing what they said about it. Frankly, looking at the Report, I get the conclusion that they did not even seriously consider it—that the presuppositions prevented the inquiry. It is true that 39 paragraphs and at least three research papers are devoted to this particular point; but the arguments are remarkably thin. There are two kinds of arguments against federalism which come out of the Report. The first is that it is an awkward system to operate", or (when they refer to Canada) greater insistence on provincial sovereignty tends to make things more difficult not less'. That is the first point: that it is awkward and difficult and a slowing down operation. The second point is that it would involve, in England, an artificial division unacceptable to the people of England", or, in other words, it being "not wanted by the people of England". The first point, about its being difficult to work, is I think an absolutely fair one so far as it goes. Federalism is clumsy, slow, and in a sense inefficient. But perhaps there are things more important than efficiency, and that is something which I do not think the Commission really considered, even though there are some interesting points about it in Research Paper No. 1 on Federal Germany, which I will come to later. It may be, and we hold that it is, that we shall not satisfy people's desires for power over their own lives unless they devolve a degree of legislative power which will, in fact, mean federalism, even if this does mean a certain lack of efficiency. This is particularly so, now that power has moved up to Brussels. Here is where I come to the point of the noble Baroness. It seems to us that the more power goes up, the more power over their own lives is taken away from the people and given to a larger centre of power, the more important it is to devolve the smaller decisions over their lives as far as humanly can be.

It is one thing to be angry about the fact that things are centralised in London and one is not being able to do anything about it; but if they are centralised in Brussels and also in London, then it is far worse. Therefore the only course that can be taken to overcome this is, in fact, to devolve a lot of powers downwards as well. That this raises real and difficult constitutional problems as it affects the Parliament at Westminster I have no doubt and do not seek to conceal. It may be that we are moving into a period of less growth, a moment where efficiency and speed will become less important to the people of this country than control over their own lives, when there will be more emphasis on small units and less on big. So far as I can see, these questions were not seriously examined—at least it does not come out in the Report.

The second point: that they raise, as to whether a federal solution is wanted by or acceptable to the people of England, is extremely important; but it comes subsequent to the point as to whether or not it is good for England. A Royal Commission can, and probably should, comment on the points of whether it is acceptable to Parliament, whether it is politically acceptable, whether, in fact, people want it; but it seems to me, with respect, that they should not form part of the argument. That point is one for the Parliament of this Kingdom, and the people. Whether federation is acceptable to the people of England I do not know, and again, with respect, neither does the Commission, because the question has never seriously been put. The whole federal question is one of those things which remained in the "Never-Never Land" and was not mentioned by anybody except the Liberals, in the same way as, for quite a number of years, the Common Market was one of those questions which was never seriously discussed in public except by the Liberals. Until it has been put before the people of England, and until it has been discussed seriously, as it should have been in the Report of this Commission, we shall not be able to have the faintest idea of whether it is acceptable or, indeed, desired by the people of England. This is the nub of my complaint, because I think there is a serious number of vested interests who want to see that that subject is not seriously put.

The other two arguments which were produced come briefly in the Minority Report. One is that it is somehow unrealistic to move sovereignty downward when in more and more subjects it is moving upwards. I hope I have at least tried to answer the noble Baroness's point about that matter thought no doubt other noble Lords will have points to raise on it. The second is that legislative devolution would not seem to reduce the burden on central Government. I do not follow this point at all, and it does not appear to be particularly supported by evidence. It appears to go against common sense. The only excuse that I can think of for it is that it possibly stems from a feeling that you could not give too much power downwards, anyway, and therefore "old Nannie", the Mother of Parliaments, would still be doing as much work, looking after what the children were doing

On the other hand, and still taking the subject of federation, I move to the extremely important Research Paper No. 1 by Mr. Nevil Johnson on Federal Government in Germany, which produces quite a large number of points which again I think have been given insufficient attention. For instance, paragraph 122 of this Report says: … to ask whether a federal system of government is more `efficient' than a unitary one, is to ask a question to which there can be no definite answer: there is unlikely to be a common understanding of 'efficiency' (which in any event is a term shaped by values embedded in the social system) …". This is indeed the argument that I am making, that the Commission did not look at whether, in fact, efficiency was necessarily a criterion and whether we should be prepared to give up efficiency in favour of other things.

In paragraph 125 the Research Paper says: … federalism … achieves a dispersion of responsibilities which act as a check on the central government and provides opportunities for initiative in the discharge of public functions by other levels of government which are far more substantial than those found in Great Britain. This is in the Federation in Germany. That is something I and my friends would very much like to see. Paragraph 127 says: "… the contemporary German structure is of interest to Britain only because it is a decentralised system in which no single part dominates all the rest. If it offers hints for decentralisation in Britain, these point to across-the-board decentralisation applying to England just as much as to the other parts of the United Kingdom. And finally, paragraph 135 says: If it is held that there is, except in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, insufficient regional consciousness to support popularly-elected authorities, then again German experience is of interest, because it shows that in time even artificial and awkwardly constructed territorial units can through institutionalisation gain political viability. Similar developments could take place in England once a provincial structure based on election had been established. That seems to me to meet to a very large extent the argument that this is not acceptable to the British people.

I hope I have now said enough to show that there is a case for federalism. I do not for one moment expect to convince your Lordships to-day that it is the right answer. What I am trying to suggest is that it should have been treated more seriously than it has been; and that it should from now on be treated more seriously than it has been. But this will take some time. In the meantime, I am not so concerned with uniformity except that—and I think my noble friends go along with this idea—probably there should be equal political rights for all citizens. But I am not so concerned with it that I think it should stand in the way of legislative devolution to elected Parliaments for Scotland and Wales, which they have for so long desired and deserved and towards which Kilbrandon points the way forward.

It will fall to my noble friends Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran and Lord Thurso to say the nice things about Kilbrandon that need to be said and to argue the case for Scotland and Wales. I should not like it to be thought that, just because I have concentrated on England—which in this case looks as if it is going to be the rather poor relation—I do not support them very strongly in the case which I know they are going to make.


My Lords. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He says that England will be the poor relation. But will it not be England that will do the paying?


That may well be, my Lords, and I will leave that particular point to be dealt with by my noble friends. I merely meant "poor relation" in terms of the amount of words that are likely to be spent upon the various parts of this Report over the next period of time and throughout the next General Election.

Meanwhile, I have had a few harsh things to say about the Commission's Report, but I will repeat once again that I should not like them to think I am not appreciative of the work which has been done. This is the first serious look at this problem for a very long time, if not the first ever. The Commission had an almost impossible job to do, and on the whole they have done it with immense care, attention and conscientiousness, and with very interesting results. We are extremely grateful to them. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, it is the normal practice in your Lordships' House to thank a noble Lord for having ventilated an issue, and of course I do that very gladly. But while I admire, as I always do, the skill with which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, has presented his views, in a speech which was, if I may say so, highly selective in certain respects, I cannot also admire his sense of timing. I say that partly because of the urgency and the magnitude of the problems to which we should be directing our attention to-day; partly, too, because, within a few weeks of publication, the Liberal Party, in the certain belief that it will not be charged with the responsibility of forming a Government, is seeking to elicit from Her Majesty's Government, and the Opposition, their views on a complex problem which does not permit of swift or simple solution. The noble Lord himself admitted that this afternoon's debate was a political exercise on the part of the Liberal Party.

Clearly, the debate on the Kilbrandon Report must now begin, bu it will have to be spread over a period. I certainly do not intend to-day to press the noble and learned Viscount to disclose to your Lordships' House what will no doubt appear in due course as a Green Paper affording a basis for the many discussions and consultations which will be needed. Speaking for myself—and I assure your Lordships that there is no official Labour Party line on this matter —I would advise the Government to move slowly. A Constitution which has evolved over the centuries; which has given us a political stability in this country never achieved in France or Germany, or indeed in many parts of the Continent; which, symbolised by the Queen in Parliament, is the envy of most Western countries (and not least at the moment the United States), is not susceptible to instant reform. To most of us who were brought up on de Tocqueville, Dicey and Burke it might seem almost disastrous to expedite unduly the evolutionary process which has made Parliament the self-reforming Assembly that it has been for the last century and a half. The relationship between the two Houses, so different and yet so similar, as this noble House and another place; the protection of the birthright of those nations who join with us in the United Kingdom; the delicate relationship between the Executive and the Judiciary; the safeguarding of the rule of law—all these are too precious to be jeopardised by precipitate action calculated to win votes rather than to conserve or extend rights.

At the same time, my Lords, it would be churlish in the extreme not to express our appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Kilbrandon, and his colleagues for the effort they put into the production of this Report. The fact that I have never before known so convoluted a Report, a Report so full of qualifications, so prolific in its acceptances and disagreements, so idiosyncratic in the many divergent conclusions it reaches, does not in any way detract from the gratitude we all feel. Our gratitude goes, too, and with far fewer reservations, to my noble friend Lord Crowther-Hunt and Professor Peacock for having produced a Memorandum of Dissent, which is elegantly phrased, clearly argued and workmanlike in its analysis. I found the first half of Appendix D of special interest, although confess I began to part company with my noble friend when the Appendix went on to discuss the reform of your Lordships' House. But, broadly, the Memorandum of Dissent is more attractive than the main Report and has, I submit, the great advantage that, unlike the latter, it obviously sets out really to evaluate the evidence the Commission received, and to base its conclusions on that evaluation. In the case of the main Report, one becomes a little tired of its preoccupation with the rehearsal of those discontents it believes to exist but for which no compelling factual justification is forthcoming.

I have not the slightest doubt that the Scots and the Welsh, not to mention the Northern Irish—and we welcome the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, in our midst to-day—have grievances that are numerous and very real. But I wonder whether they are more real or more numerous than in the case of the English. Is maladministration inside the Health Service, for example, worse and more prevalent in Dundee than in Dymchurch or Derby? And are Central Government officials more prone to Bumbledom in Harlech than in Harwich or Hull? Do the citizens of Newport complain about the inadequacy of retirement pensions more bitterly and more vociferously than those of the more remote St. Ives? Remembering the efforts made by every post-war Government to improve the lot of those on the perimeter of these islands, one wonders whether the Royal Commission are right in appearing to accept so readily the discontents, to which they so frequently refer, as stemming from the causes to which nationalists would attribute them. May it not be that a certain disenchantment with political Parties is widespread? Could that disenchantment spring from ill-considered remarks dropped in Election campaigns about lowering the cost of living at a stroke or providing cheap mortgages? Lonrho and Centre Point, moreover, evoke the same cynicism in Clapham as they do in Caithness and Carmarthen. And does not direct action, with its emphasis on the spectacular rather than the logical, with its greater attraction to the media than quiet constructive thinking and remedial measures, also tend to get current discontents out of perspective?

On calm reflection, these seem more plausible explanations than any sudden realisation of what is, after all, the long-established fact that Edinburgh is 400 miles from London, and that there has been substantial administrative devolution since the days of militancy on the Clyde in the first World War, or the unrest in the coalfields and shipyards in the 'twenties and 'thirties, or, the longstanding bitterness of many against the sterilisation of land for sporting purposes. Certainly, I look back with admiration and with great respect on the tenacity with which, in the last Government, Mr. Ross, my noble friend Lord Hughes and Mr. George Thomas always ensured that the interests of Scotland and Wales were not overlooked in Cabinet, or on Cabinet Committees.

I wonder whether some members of the Royal Commission are wise in arguing at this stage for yet another tier of Government? We are engaged at the present time, my Lords, on the most radical reform of local government for nearly a century. In England alone approximately 1,200 local authorities will be slashed by 75 per cent. Their functions are being substantially changed. Scotland and Wales are undergoing a similar revolution. Is it really the time to be seeking to introduce another tier between the county council and Westminster? My Lords, just consider—it would mean that our fellow-citizens (who do not suffer from our own disability as Peers of the Realm in Parliamentary elections) would find themselves voting for a local council, a district council, a county council, a regional or provincial assembly, Westminster, and possibly the European Parliament—six rounds of elections. We should be within reach of the absurdity which characterises the American way of Government and which often results in a poll so low as to be a reflection on democracy.

Speaking for myself, I am quite confident that to subject our own peoples to so complicated and demanding an electoral system would do nothing to reverse the growing apathy which has been reflected at every General Election in the last 25 years and which is chronic, but not I hope endemic, in local government. On the contrary, I believe it could well intensify the "we/they" attitude which is now so prevalent. I have a feeling in my bones that we should perhaps wait until we have had some experience of the working of the new system of local government before we form too positive a judgment on the extent, and to what bodies, any further devolution of administration is necessary, and how best the Welsh, for example, can exert more influence over the application of policy in their own country. I think perhaps I should tell your Lordships that the Welsh Parliamentary group of the Labour Party emphasises the extent to which it believes in and attaches importance to administrative devolution.

At the same time, my Lords, I do not wish it to seem from this statement of my personal views that I am complacent. The noble Lord referred to the European Economic Community. Some of your Lordships may recall that I was one of the small minority in your Lordships' House in our debates on the Common Market who warned about the extent on which membership of the Community would erode the powers of the British Parliament. At the weekend I studied the Demand Form for E.E.C. Printed Papers and I found that there were 25 Official Journals, 2 European Parliamentary Documents, 30 European Parliament Working Documents, 13 E.E.C. Draft Instruments, 1 European Parliament Selected Document, 2 Consultative Documents and 14 Explanatory Statements on Draft Instruments—that is a total of 87 publications which were offered to us for our consideration. It is difficult to see how we can add yet another tier to our responsibilities when they have been extended in the way that they have by our entry into the European Community.

It is my view that, as well as the distance between Land's End and John o'Groats, it is the remoteness from the working of Government which makes our people, whether they are Welsh, Scots or English, feel that they are losing control over their own destiny. And that feeling of impotence, my Lords, is compounded by a realisation of how much has been taken from the local councils in the past quarter of a century, since I was a borough councillor shortly after the end of the war, and how much is being taken away to-day in the course of reorganising water and the health service. The real but wholly unnecessary "we/they" antithesis stems from the transfer of power away from democratically elected bodies to appointed ad hoc bodies of a non-representative character at least as much as it does from distance from Westminster.

My Lords, I think that most of us will endorse warmly the Royal Commission's rejection of both separatism and federalism, but I hope that nothing that I have said will suggest that I have anything but sympathy with the Scots, the Welsh, or indeed the English, in seeking to improve their influence over decision-making and the implementation of decisions when they have been taken. It is a sphere in which many of us experience the same sense of frustration, whatever our ethnic background; the closer involvement of our people in government, the creation of machinery for the more rapid alleviation of grievances, are tasks of prime importance and they should not be left to await the reform of the Constitution. They are susceptible of administrative solutions—indeed swift solution if the political will is there—and we cannot set out to change our Constitution overnight.

The changes, if any, which need to be made to our Constitution will need long and anxious thought at all levels and in all parts of the United Kingdom. Rejecting the Liberal Party's unique combination of consumer research and pyramid selling as a substitute for political policy, we in the Labour Party have already embarked on the process of discussion and consultation. I detected a certain note of smugness in the attribution of virtue to the Liberal Party by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. It is well known that the Conservative Party has considered this issue over a long period, and I think equally well known that we on these Benches also attach the same importance to it and have given it the same care and consideration over the last 15 or 20 years.

I have no doubt, my Lords, that Her Majesty's Government, in spite of their preoccupation with our present disasters, have not abandoned their interest in this matter and we on these Benches will welcome a return to this subject when we have all had time to give the Report more detailed consideration and when public opinion is beginning to take shape.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene at this stage, with what is I trust (and I am sorry to say that this is unusual this week) a certain personal brevity, because I think it would be as well if the House were to have word from the Government early in the debate, and possibly I shall be able, with the leave of the House, to say another word later. Certainly the first thing I should like to do is to commend the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for giving this House the first opportunity to debate the Report of the Royal Commission—indeed, one could hardly have taken an earlier opportunity, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, has indicated.

The Royal Commission have produced a work not only of prodigious size but also of very great value and importance—and no less important, I think, in its lack of unanimity. Its depth and its quality are compensations which more than make up for lack of unanimity, because had there been the highest degree of unanimity in the Commission I doubt whether that could possibly have been sustained throughout the whole of the population of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, our thanks are very much due to the members of the Commission—and here I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for the way in which they have stuck to their task and have presented to us so worthwhile a document. It is a particular pleasure to note, on behalf of the Government, the part played, as is so often the case, by three present Members of this House, and, of course, a fourth, the late Lord Crowther, to whom reference has already been made. The three present Members are the noble and learned Lord, Lord Kilbrandon, who is to follow me in this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Foot, who, sadly, is an absentee from his place to-day, and the noble Lord, Lord Crowther-Hunt, whom we look forward to hearing a little later.

I have listened with great interest to what has been said so far and I shall continue to do so. We have as it were, at any rate in the first two thirds of the debate, what appears to me to be like a very remarkable Liberal Danish sandwich, which is entirely in line with the Liberals' views upon the role of this country in Europe, founded, as we have just heard, as it seems to me, upon a good wheaten wholemeal slice of English Fenland bread from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. In a little while we shall have some very new leaven from Wales, in the form of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, and the whole sandwich will be topped by a delectable slice of oatcake from Caithness when the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, comes to speak. The intermediate fillings are of enormous quality except for, I suppose, myself, coming in the middle of the bottom layer. We shall listen with great interest to what will be said from Northern Ireland, from Scotland and from other parts of the country.

It is of course a great pity that a fourth member of the Royal Commission cannot take part in the deliberations of this House this afternoon. We must all regret bitterly the death of the original Chairman, Lord Crowther, who, with his acute intelligence, intellect and his great breadth of knowledge and understanding, made an outstanding personal contribution to the work of this Royal Commis- sion. I think his colleagues must most sadly have felt his absence when he so unfortunately died. When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Kilbrandon, took his place we were equally thankful and grateful, although I can imagine some of the alarms which no doubt tilled him when he had to take over that position. For his outstanding sense of public duty, and the skill and patience with which he husbanded the work of the Royal Commission through to its conclusion, he is owed a great debt of gratitude by all of us here, and I think by a wider public outside this House.

Noble Lords in all parts of the House—other than, I think, the Liberals, although even the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, went so far as to touch upon this—will agree that the Royal Commission were really given an almost impossible task to perform—I see that the noble Lord is nodding his head. The impossibility is apparent to all the rest of us; it appears that the solution is clear only to the Liberals. But if one looks at our Constitution it is not, after all, unlike many others, a clear-cut entity. There is no clearly defined framework—there was none and there is none now—for the Royal Commission to examine. There has never been previously a Royal Commission on this subject, so there were no guidelines to follow; and, secondly, the Royal Commission were required to investigate in an impartial way a field which is essentially political. That is a paradox which it is not easy to resolve. In a matter such as devolution which is that upon which the argument has turned, it is obviously difficult to separate the technical arguments from the more general considerations which depend on day-to-day politics, the popular will and indeed upon further devolution, which takes place all the time.

Again, in terms of difficulties with which they were faced, the Royal Commission have terms of reference of great width and diversity. There were extensive ramifications affecting not only the relationships of the central institutions of Government in Scotland, Wales and England, but also their relationships with Northern Ireland; and certainly I do not forget the relationships with what are, in essence, independent Governments under the Crown in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. They have a special chapter to themselves. The total volume of work was sufficient for several Royal Commissions. Indeed the noble Lord. Lord Beaumont, said that the Report alone—which did not I think pretend to cover the complete field as it might have done, had it wished to do so—together with the evidence and the research papers is worth several debates. This total volume was a very substantial undertaking indeed, yet all the subjects in its ambit are in a sense—and some more closely than others—inter-related to the extent that they cannot be readily separated.

Finally, the Commission were required to have regard to a continually changing situation, and many changes took place during the period when they were sitting. Because of this, they were forced to retrace their steps and to go over matters already settled in discussion not once but many times. They set out some of these difficulties in the Report, and I do not think we should either ignore or underestimate them. Perhaps this is another reason why snap decisions are not entirely the most felicitous results of their works.

I really intervene at this stage to underline the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale. We have had this Report before us for something in the region of six weeks, if that. It is an early stage of the discussion and I am not prepared to make, nor am I prepared even to hint at, any definitive statement on behalf of the Government. This Government have made no secret of their interest in devolution. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has already indicated, in the Statements that he has made about this Report of the Royal Commission, that it is the intention of the Government to formulate proposals and to put them forward in the lifetime of the present Parliament. So when the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, says in somewhat scathing tones, "What are the Government going to do about it, and when?" and he provides the answers rhetorically for himself— "Nothing and never", let us take account of what one previous politician said: let us wait and see.

Let us also take account of what my right honourable friend has said. I think it would be totally irresponsible for us at this stage to lay down a line of what we wish to do, certainly in advance of wide discussions, because one thing that must be plain is that on a matter of this sort there should be wide, active public debate. I have stood at this Dispatch Box on a number of issues since I joined the team from the Home Office. I have talked about firearms; I have talked about the Law Revision Committee; I have talked about pornography; I have talked about countless subjects—indeed I cannot even remember how many there have been. What I have said is that the Government welcome the informed and considered opinion of people who are prepared to go with intelligence into these difficult questions. This is no exception. Here we have perhaps the most difficult of them all, and certainly after six weeks I am not going to try to rush anything through this House. We think there is much to be discussed in theory and indeed in practice, because even if one sorts out the theory there are many practical problems to be considered.

Bearing in mind what I have said about the fact, as it is, that this subject has never been previously referred to a Royal Commission—and if one turns to paragraph 44 of the Royal Commission's Report one discovers that they discussed the evolution of this problem back to the period before the establishment of Roman rule in Britain, which, according to my somewhat insignificant knowledge of history, was some 2,000 years ago—and we are supposed to make up our minds in these weeks, then I think that this is asking a bit much. There is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, has taken the opportunity to restate yet again the view of the Liberal Party which they have always maintained, and which, as I understand it, they put forward in evidence to the Commission. There were other parties who are present on the British political scene who put forward their views to the Royal Commission, and no doubt they would stick to them to this day; but is it really responsible for any great political Party to stick manfully to the evidence they gave before they saw the result of the Royal Commission, and then say that this is the only solution? I am afraid that that is what the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, has done to-day. It is not the view of the Opposition put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale; it is not the view that I would suggest to the House to-day. Rather than that, the Government, and I believe also the Opposition, would prefer to formulate their own proposals. They are probably not going to be the same, but let us do them with circumspection and thought in the light of the maximum comment and advice on all these matters from as wide a public as we can get. What I can say about the debate this afternoon is that it is certainly not premature but is the first opportunity anyone has had to discuss this subject in public.

My Lords, I anticipate powerful contributions from noble Lords who are intensely involved in constitutional matters, not only those on the Royal Commission but others who have had a great deal to do with affairs of State in one way or another in various parts of the United Kingdom. We shall listen with enormous interest to what they have to say, hoping that at the same time they will not be too partipris in the process. In addition to listening to noble Lords fortunate enough to be able to take part in the debate in this House this afternoon, we should also like to listen to the views of the rest of the population of the United Kingdom. If they would tell us, preferably in writing, what it is they would like us to do about this Royal Commission—this is part of a genuine consultative process and one that is working very well on other matters that we have in hand under the same sort of machinery—we should be very pleased, and I hope we shall have many comments from many sources over a period of time. We will attempt to process them, and in time to come—I do not know how long it will take—maybe we shall come forward with a rather more positive statement. But to-day, I must say simply that I will listen with interest and fascination to what is said, as I have done already to the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, and to the reiteration of the Liberal point of view put by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley.


My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned for the purpose of delivering a Message from the Queen.

Moved accordingly, and on Question, Motion agreed to.