§ 3.11 p.m.
§ The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern) rose to move, That this House take note of the United Kingdom's existing constitutional settlement, and of the implications of proposals for change.
§ The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, which deals with a topic of fundamental importance to this country. As is well known, we are unusual in not having a written document referred to as our constitution. That does not mean that we have no constitution. We certainly do. But it is found in the body of convention, common law, case law and statute making up the law of the United Kingdom. Many provisions are statutory: the Bill of Rights and the Act of Union, among many others. Ours is a flexible constitution, in the sense that conventions and rules, evolved over long periods, adapt to a multitude of situations which a written document, reflecting attitudes and circumstances of a particular period or time, could not. That is a strength of our system, which the Prime Minister last week quite rightly described as "robust".
§ Historically, all power in this country ultimately derives from the Crown: the Government consisting of the Queen's ministers; the Queen in Parliament as the legislature; and Her Majesty's judges and magistrates exercising the judicial power of the state. There is separation of those powers—the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary—but they are not contained in water-tight compartments. We have Cabinet government in which members of the Executive branch are drawn from the two Houses of Parliament 1450 and are both individually and collectively responsible to Parliament. Parliament, however, delegates legislative powers to members of the Executive, and certain powers of adjudication are conferred on Ministers and other non-judicial agencies. Judicial Members of the House of Lords serve as both judges and legislators; and the office of Lord Chancellor adds to these a ministerial role.
§ I believe that this arrangement of functions has considerable advantages. For example, the presence of the most senior members of the judiciary in this House enables the legislative process to draw on a tremendous concentration of legal expertise and judicial experience, with benefits going far beyond consideration of what is usually called "lawyers law". I am sure that all of us are very much looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chief Justice of England in today's debate.
§ In the absence of a written constitution in the conventional sense, we place considerable weight on practice and convention. The judgment, discretion and good faith of those operating our constitutional arrangements are of the greatest importance. It is a strength rather than a weakness. It inculcates mutual recognition and understanding of the respective roles, and permits flexibility and adaptation to developing circumstances. As long as we have people in public life with the necessary qualities—and I believe that we are very fortunate in that respect—I think our arrangements work at least as well as, perhaps better than, many others.
§ While the functions of government are not compartmentalised, the basic principles and divisions are clear. The primary function of law making rests with Parliament, the supreme law-making body. The Government, the Executive branch, must act within the law and the courts must apply and give effect to it. The role of the courts in developing the common law should not be underestimated; but that role is developing principle, not creating wholly new law. Statute is the supreme source of law, and in any conflict between the common law and the clearly expressed will of the legislature in an Act of Parliament, the Act must prevail. But even here the function of the courts is by no means purely mechanical: they must construe and apply these Acts and, in doing so, they may rely on historical common law principles of interpretation and application.
§ What they cannot do, and show no sign of attempting to do, is refuse to give effect to an Act of Parliament or to question its validity. It is sometimes said that your Lordships' House has already, in the Factortame case, struck down an Act of Parliament by reference to a higher order which dilutes or reduces the sovereignty of Parliament; namely, the law and institutions of the European Community or the European Union. I think that that is an incorrect analysis of the Factortame decision.
§ It is important to be clear that Community law, including decisions of the European Court of Justice, has authority here by virtue of an Act of Parliament—namely, the European Communities Act 1972, with subsequent amendments to it. The Factortame decision rests on the basis that the Merchant 1451 Shipping Act had to be read in the context of the European Communities Act, which expressly provided that all other statutes should be construed and have effect subject to the provisions giving Community law primacy in our legal system. That was enough, in the absence of a clear provision in the 1988 Act overriding the 1972 Act, to reverse the rule that, in a conflict between two Acts of Parliament, the later takes precedence. Accordingly the English court correctly proceeded on the basis that Parliament did not intend to override Community law in passing the Merchant Shipping Act. It is open to Parliament expressly to override the 1972 Act and, if it did so, the courts would be bound to give effect to this, even though that might be a breach of obligations under the Community treatise. But that would be a problem for the Government and Parliament to deal with, rather than the courts.
§ Similar considerations apply to our membership of other international organisations, such as the United Nations. Resolutions of the Security Council bind us in international law but, where they need to have legal force in this country, they can be implemented under the United Nations Act 1946 by an Order in Council.
§ It may also be argued that Parliament's sovereignty is limited by various other legal conventions and treaties. Again, as a matter of legal theory, I believe that that is not correct. Conventions operate by agreement of the parties. The process of entering into them is not irreversible: however, it is open to a party to withdraw under conditions that may be specified. If the power of Parliament in that respect is subject to any limits, those limits are due to political considerations—and considerations of international comity—rather than purely legal considerations.
§ I have already referred to the process of evolution by which the constitutional principles of this country have been built up. The result is a network of arrangements ensuring good government and fairness to individuals. Essential to it is the interplay between historical common law principles and the application of statutes. I take the view that common law principles have embedded in them certain settled concepts which provide broad and flexible protection of individuals' rights. One of the principles of interpretation to which I have referred is that the courts will have regard to these basic tenets when interpreting statutes, resolving ambiguities so as to minimise the effect on essential and particularly important elements of the common law. I personally consider this approach more satisfactory and better for the individual than one based on written and therefore less flexible principles. That is one reason why the Government do not favour the elaboration of a Bill of Rights or the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law.
§ Your Lordships have debated the question of a Bill of Rights, whether in the form of the European Convention or in some other form, on several occasions. I will today merely state what I believe to be a few of the salient points. The question of whether the European Convention is incorporated or not is, in my view, of little relevance to the real standard of legal protection afforded by the state to individuals in this country. Nor is there any evidence, in my view, that it would reduce 1452 the number of cases going from this country to the human rights court in Strasbourg. Our record at Strasbourg has been questioned; but if account is taken of relative population sizes and the length of time the right of individual petition and jurisdiction of the court has been accepted here, we are about in the middle of the field.
§ Legal traditions, legislative and judicial approaches lead in practice to the same or a higher level of protection of human rights provided in a number of other ways. Unwritten principles, for example, of rationality and legality can be greatly superior to the list of rights set out in the convention. There is also a presumption applied by the courts in cases of ambiguity that Parliament does not intend to legislate inconsistently with the United Kingdom's international obligations.
§ Enacting a Bill of Rights in terms similar to the convention, or incorporating the convention itself would give courts wide discretion over matters which in my view are properly the preserve of Parliament. It is for Parliament to legislate so that our legal arrangements comply with convention principles, taking account, for example, of the margin of appreciation allowed to member states under Strasbourg case law. The extent to which that margin of appreciation is used is clearly, in my judgment, a matter for political balance but would have to be decided by our courts on the basis of a generally worded provision if the convention were incorporated in our law in terms such as I have mentioned. This contrasts strongly with our own legislative drafting tradition and would leave much scope for judicial interpretation and of course litigation. I think it would also have the effect of creating the impression that the Strasbourg court was in the nature of a court of appeal from the House of Lords.
§ Moreover, the scope for judicial interpretation would inevitably draw judges into making decisions which are essentially political rather than legal in nature. For example, the courts might be asked to decide sensitive matters such as the conditions under which abortions should be allowed. That has been put forward as a constitutional question in some other jurisdictions which will occur quite readily to your Lordships. In my view our tradition is clearly that such matters should be decided by Parliament. Against such a background a strong demand would emerge for judges to be chosen for their social or political views rather than their legal qualities and impartiality. It would be a short step to the kind of senatorial hearings on the appointment of judges which we see in the United States. In my view that would be a fundamental change in the nature of our judiciary, and an unwelcome one.
§ I regard the appointment of judges as a most important feature of our constitutional arrangements and among the most important of my duties as Lord Chancellor in so far as I am concerned with those matters. The judges collectively form the cornerstone of our system of justice. It is imperative that they are of the highest quality. My aim is to ensure that we have the best judges available and that selection is efficient, fair and open. I therefore very much welcome the endorsement given by the Home Affairs Select 1453 Committee of the other place in its recent report to the existing judicial appointments system and to the developments of it which I have introduced.
§ I now turn to another cornerstone of the United Kingdom's constitution; namely, the Union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Government believe there is no greater priority than the preservation of that Union. Following the historic settlement that created our United Kingdom we have all benefited from centuries of united history and common endeavour. In my opinion the Union guarantees stability and enhances the status of each of its member nations. We would each be hugely diminished by the break-up of the United Kingdom.
§ The proposals for devolution, supported by some of your Lordships and by some of their colleagues in another place, do not appear to me adequately to meet that test. In my view these proposals contain serious flaws which I do not believe can be resolved and which would lead to a real risk of breaking up the United Kingdom. The fundamental problem to my mind is that the nations making up the United Kingdom are of such different size that no balanced devolution is possible.
§ One particular matter that I wish to raise at the outset is that proposals relating to your Lordships' House, for example, do not appear to take sufficiently into account the long enshrined principle of bicameral government. In Scotland a single chamber parliament has been proposed with powers over some areas of government. Some 5 million of the Queen's subjects, in substantial aspects of their lives, would fall under provisions enacted by a unicameral legislature. I believe this would be counter to the evolution of our constitution that has taken place over the past millennium.
§ As we are considering a referendum on this matter, why, for example, should there not be a question in the proposed referendum on the removal of Scottish legislation from scrutiny by your Lordships' House? There are certainly risks to the Scottish economy in these proposals. Devolution would threaten the livelihood of those who live and work in Scotland, and I believe would deter at least some of those contemplating investing there. At the heart of this is the proposal for tax varying powers of the new assembly. Especially against a backdrop of the gradual evolution of our constitution which I have described, this proposal highlights the central issue of the relationship between an Edinburgh parliament and the Westminster Parliament. This relationship is fundamental, surely, to any proposal for tax raising powers, or tax lowering powers. Tax varying powers is the expression which has been more commonly used recently.
§ If a new Scottish parliament is created, it is obvious that the major issues affecting the United Kingdom will continue to be discussed and resolved at Westminster. It is there that those who wish to have an important say in our affairs will want to be, as opposed to a parliament in Scotland. If one wants illustration of that, one has only to ask whether the three prominent Scottish politicians who were recently made Members of the Privy Council will wish to be in a Scottish parliament or the Parliament at Westminster. The Scottish parliament once created will be longing to obtain more of such power. This is the 1454 tension that will provide a powerful force tending to prize apart the United Kingdom. Further, it is difficult to see how it is fair that Scottish Members will continue to legislate on important matters for England when their English colleagues would have no say on such issues in Scotland.
§ It is crucial that the risks of devolution are recognised. I do not believe it is satisfactory to pledge a referendum to be held before a devolution Bill is proposed. A referendum would require legislation but a referendum before legislation about devolution would do nothing to resolve these difficulties. Surely people need to know precisely what they would be voting for. For example, what is to be the financial relationship between Scotland and Westminster? I sought to emphasise a few moments ago how crucial that must be to the question of tax-varying powers. How can you sensibly raise a question about tax-varying proposals for a Scottish Assembly until you know the legislated answer to that? Some say that you can put it all in a White Paper.
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, it is less certain in a Green Paper, if I pick up correctly what comes from my left. But surely White Papers are not necessarily the will of Parliament; and it is surely taking Parliament for granted to suppose that what a government appear to set out in a White Paper will necessarily be the answer that Parliament will return in legislation.
I believe that any change—and change and development are part of the genius of our constitution—must conserve the evident and hard won benefits which have accrued over time to all parties to our Union. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate our commitment to practical, pragmatic improvement than the recent strengthening of the role of the Scottish Grand Committee in another place. Issues relevant to the people of Scotland are now being debated on Scottish soil, in every part of Scotland, with members of the public present, enabling them to see their Government at work.
My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer went to the meeting in Aberdeen. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security took part in the meeting in Dunfermline. My right honourable friend the Prime Minster will be going to Dumfries on Friday to discuss matters connected with the Government of the United Kingdom. Other Cabinet colleagues will undoubtedly have the privilege of attending such meetings in the future. These innovations are self-evidently working, making government more effective. We will look at the scope for further changes, provided that they pass the same test.
There is one other very important change which I should like to announce to your Lordships this afternoon. I think that it is an illustration of the deeply engraved sense of belonging to a Union that I know this whole House feels. Exactly 700 years ago, in 1296, King Edward I of England brought from 1455 Scotland the Stone of Destiny and housed it in Westminster Abbey. It remains the property of Her Majesty in right of her Crown.
I am now glad to be able to let your Lordships know, as the Prime Minister is doing in another place at this time, that on the advice of Her Majesty's Government Her Majesty has agreed that the Stone should be returned to Scotland. I think that this is only justice to the Scottish people, and I am very proud to be a Member of a Government who have been able to do this. Of course, the Stone will return to Westminster Abbey to play its traditional role in the Coronation ceremonies of future sovereigns of the United Kingdom as the very base of the chair on which that great Union rests.
I am sure that the whole House would wish to be assured that the Stone will be placed in an appropriate setting in Scotland. The Government will be consulting Scottish and Church opinion about this. The Stone might be housed in Edinburgh Castle alongside the Honours of Scotland, Europe's oldest Crown Jewels. Alternatively, it might be appropriate to place it in St. Margaret's Chapel inside the Castle or in St. Giles' Cathedral. There may be other options. Once these consultations have been completed, the necessary arrangements will be made and the Stone will be installed with due dignity in its new home in Scotland; and certainly I for one will be extremely pleased to see that happen.
The approach of the Government to our constitutional arrangements is an evolutionary one: that change should be made only where it is needed. Rapid change in many areas, especially in social and economic fields, underlines the need to preserve stability where existing arrangements have stood us in good stead. In opening this debate I have touched only upon some of the areas which your Lordships will wish to consider. I do not pretend to have dealt with them in any kind of detail.
In opening I said that the question of the constitution is an issue of fundamental importance for our country, and of great interest politically, legally and indeed academically. I look forward to a fascinating debate; and I renew my Motion.
Moved, That this House takes note of the United Kingdom's existing constitutional settlement, and of the implications of proposals for change.—(The Lord Chancellor.)
§ Baroness White
My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, will he tell the House whether he has considered how desirable it is that on political matters the Lord Chancellor behaves in the same way as the Speaker of the House of Commons, and not go too far into the subject that he has been discussing in this House?
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, it has long been the tradition of this House that when the Lord Chancellor is acting as Speaker of the House he stands in the middle. When he makes observations as a Member of the Government, for some reason which history I am sure will explain to me, he moves to the left and finds himself very near to the Liberal Benches.
1456 However, the Speaker of the House of Commons is in an entirely different position. She has powers of order which I do not possess, your Lordships not requiring to be ordered. Therefore my position is quite different from that of the Speaker of the House of Commons; and I believe that it is within the constitutional proprieties that I said all that I said this afternoon.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, on a more amiable note, with regard to the Stone, does he agree that the people of Scotland asked for bread and they were lent a Stone?
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, I happened to be at a debating society shortly after the Stone was moved on an earlier occasion. A debate was signalled with the subject: "That Stones are borne, but Scones are bread".
As a more serious answer to the noble Lord's question, I believe that symbolism is important in our constitution. The Stone is an important symbol and we believe that it is a symbol of justice that the Stone of Destiny, taken away in circumstances with which the noble Lord is familiar, should now be returned with dignity to a proper home in Scotland.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ Lord Irvine of Lairg
My Lords, we look forward shortly to the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill. He is a jurist of the highest distinction; today he must be non-controversial, but he is bound to inform.
Last Wednesday in London, the Prime Minister delivered a wide-ranging speech on the constitution. It was the first salvo in the "New Labour: New Danger Campaign", the last gasp slogan of the party opposite, after all its inconsistent predecessors failed to convince. The Prime Minister's speech was in a way a classic in the genre of negative campaigning. It scaled new heights of complacency about the present state of our constitutional arrangements. It was as if our constitution was a jewel so beyond improvement that we have reached the end of history.
The Prime Minister has said that:devolution to Scotland was one of the most dangerous propositions ever to be put before the British people".Last Wednesday, he claimed that it would,destabilise and diminish the British Parliament".Two days later, in Edinburgh, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Blair, was renewing the Labour Party's commitment to legislate for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. On every great development in our country's constitution there have been those who, like the Prime Minister, have resisted change because the time is not ripe, because the time is never now. But they have so often been swept aside by the tide of change.
In the same speech, the Prime Minister's satisfaction with our current arrangements was on fine display, with his outright dismissal of the case for the incorporation into our domestic law of the European Convention on 1457 Human Rights. Practically every other European country has incorporated it, but not us. Nor, according to the Prime Minister, should we ever. He told us that,we have no need of a Bill of Rights because we have freedom".The mother and father of complacency of that order is an enervating insularity.
The contrast with Mr. Blair is sharp. He has reaffirmed Labour's commitment to incorporate the convention so that our citizens can secure their human rights guaranteed under the convention, not from a court in Strasbourg but from our own judges. Our judges should be allowed to make a distinctive British contribution to the development of human rights in Europe. Labour's position is that we should be leading in the development of human rights in Europe, not grudgingly driven to swallow the medicine prescribed for us by the court in Strasbourg, as time and again we are found in breach of the convention.
But the Prime Minister's considered position is that the British conception of freedom is quite good enough for us, although, if a law exists that affects human rights in a way that clearly breaches the convention, it will be that law, not the requirements of the convention, which our courts have to enforce. Mr. Blair said of Mr. Major:he advocates no change. We advocate sensible change".Mr. Blair is right.
I return to devolution for Scotland and Wales. Labour believes that government of the United Kingdom is over-centralised, that the institutions of democracy and government should be brought closer to the people whom they represent. There is a contradiction at the core of the thinking of the party opposite: "yes" to subsidiarity in Europe; "no" to subsidiarity in the UK.
Denunciation after denunciation of devolution comes from the party opposite. Their protestations can be kept in proportion if we remind ourselves that in the 1970s they were proposing a Scottish assembly, to be elected by PR, with revenue raising and taxation powers in addition to the block grant, to be controlled by the Assembly, and with no reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster. Let me remind the House what the Scottish Tory manifesto of 1974 actually said:Devolution is our policy and is the direct opposite of separatism. It can free Scotland from the frustrations of centralisation".May I tell your Lordships who it was who declared at a rally in Edinburgh in 1975:The establishment of a Scottish Assembly must be a top priority to ensure that more decisions are taken in Scotland by Scots"?It was Margaret Thatcher, now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. May I tell your Lordships who it was who wrote in that self-same year of the need for the Tory Party to prepare itself:for a future where a Scottish Assembly is a permanent feature of political life, as it inevitably will be";and who it was who wrote eloquently of the Tory commitment to "diffusion of power"? It was Michael Forsyth, now the Secretary of State for Scotland.
May I tell your Lordships who it was who said at the same time that the proposed new Scottish assembly, 1458with complete autonomy in the formulation of policy, could be the catalyst for recharging the batteries of the Tory Party in Scotland"?It was Mr. Forsyth's predecessor as Scottish Secretary, Mr. Ian Lang. May I tell noble Lords who it was who said in that year—1975 was the year of Conservative enlightenment towards Scotland—We would strongly oppose any suggestion of bargaining Scottish representation at Westminster in order to obtain parliamentary approval for the Devolution Bill—in our view the maintenance of the present number of Scottish MPs should be a prime objective in the months to come"?It was Mr. Malcolm Rifkind, now the Foreign Secretary. How the vision of youth can fall prey to crabbed middle age!
Members of a party whose principled position once was to regard a directly elected assembly as entirely consistent with the political and economic integrity of the United Kingdom are, of course, well entitled to change their minds. But we could be forgiven for thinking that so dramatic a change of mind might inspire a certain reticence in their condemnation of what they once proposed.
The Government's opposition to devolution for Scotland and Wales does not begin to square with their advocacy of devolution for Northern Ireland as part of a settlement there. Let me remind the party opposite what its proposals for a settlement there are. They are for a legislative assembly of about 90 members, elected for four or five years by a form of PR, with legislative and executive responsibility over as wide a range of subjects as in 1973 and with no proposal to reduce the number of Northern Irish MPs in the United Kingdom Parliament.
The problems afflicting Northern Ireland are of course unique. But the point I make is that the Government's proposal for Northern Ireland is an acknowledgement that the stability of the Union does not depend on precisely symmetrical arrangements for each part of the Union.
In his Edinburgh speech last Friday, Mr. Blair made it plain that shortly after the election detailed White Papers on devolution in Scotland and Wales would be published, to be followed by referenda in which Labour would be campaigning for a massive "Yes" vote.
Labour would have been well entitled, after a general election victory on a manifesto pledging Welsh and Scottish devolution, to bring legislation before Parliament. But members of the party opposite cannot deny that if that happened their position in Parliament would be to oppose on the basis that demand for devolution was not demonstrated.
A short time ago Mr. Forsyth said that it was high time Labour,committed themselves to seeking endorsement for their programmes through a referendum of the Scottish people".Well, we have done—and we are confident that when the Labour government who have won a general election bring their standing into the campaign for a powerful "Yes" vote, that is what there will be.
But is Mr. Forsyth satisfied? Does he welcome the commitment to a referendum? Not a bit of it. He resorts to quite different, negative campaigning, in the odd 1459 company of Mr. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party. Labour's courage in committing itself to a referendum has shot those two rather odd foxes, in their unholy alliance, with a single bullet.
The question that Mr. Forsyth and the party opposite have to answer is: if the Scottish people say "Yes" in the referendum, will they accept the will of the Scottish people or will they go on opposing the principle of devolution? That is the question to which Scotland expects an answer in this debate. If the party opposite cannot say that it will accept the will in principle of the Scottish people, then the Scottish people will draw their own conclusions. The batteries of the Tory Party in Scotland will then not just be low. They will be exhausted.
And there are questions for Mr. Salmond too—not just whether he will accept a "Yes" result in the referendum, but also whether he and his party will be campaigning for a "Yes" vote.
The referendum decision is right in principle. It signals no weakening of commitment. On the contrary, the purpose of a referendum is to demonstrate demand for devolution. The achievement of our objective— devolution—will be driven forward by the huge "Yes" votes we predict. Parliament would surely not deny the will of the people. The "Yes" vote will give great impetus to the passage of the legislation through Parliament. It will be a popular endorsement of devolution—not entrenchment in law, but popular entrenchment in fact.
We support the Union. We oppose separatism—
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, in view of the noble Lord's emphasis on the importance of the popular wish for measures of devolution, why is it that the English people should have no vote in a referendum of that kind?
§ Lord Irvine of Lairg
My Lords, that is perhaps as absurd a contribution to the argument as one could conceive of. The purpose of a referendum for Scotland is to test demand for devolution in Scotland. It is not a serious proposition that there is a demand in England for Scottish devolution. That is why the proposition is absurd.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, perhaps I may put a slightly easier question to the noble Lord. He made much of the fact that the Labour Party will be campaigning for a "Yes" vote in the referendum. But there are two questions. Will the noble Lord be campaigning for a tax-raising assembly for Scotland—a tartan tax—yes or no?
§ Lord Irvine of Lairg
My Lords, in the second part of the referendum we shall certainly be campaigning strongly in favour of a tax-raising power, or a tax lowering power; that is to say, a tax varying power of up to 3p in the pound.
I shall resume. We support the Union. We oppose separatism. If we believed that devolution would lead to the break-up of the Union, we would not support it. On 1460 the contrary, not only is devolution right in itself for Scotland; it is a necessary bulwark against separatism. It is to that truth that the party opposite is so blind. It is we who are on the effective side of maintaining the security of the Union.
I return to incorporation of the European Convention. In the debate in this House which I was able to open on 5th June about the judiciary and the separation of powers, I expressed my confidence in the political impartiality of the judiciary; paid tribute to the high quality of judicial review; and stated my personal hostility to any legislative attempt to restrict judicial review, which directly promotes the rule of law.
Now I take the opportunity of this debate to record my conviction, contrary to that of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, that the incorporation of the European convention into English law is long overdue. The Attlee Government of the post-war years took the lead in promoting the convention. We were the first state to ratify it, on 8th March 1951. But Britain is virtually alone among the major nations of Western Europe in failing to give its citizens a direct means of asserting their convention rights through their national courts. Britain has the reputation in Europe of being one of the most consistent transgressors of human rights in the Council of Europe.
The Prime Minister tells us that,we have no need of a Bill of Rights because we have freedom".But how can our rights and liberties be so well protected under our law when we have so dismal a record of failure in the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg?
The Labour Party in government will incorporate the European convention into domestic law.
I agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, said to the Select Committee considering Lord Wade's Bill of Rights in 1976:A radical overhaul of our Constitutional arrangements, a Bill of Rights entrenching the European Convention is a modest, but desirable, addition to the armament of liberty against populist of bureaucratic intrusion and oppression".If we incorporate the convention, then its protections can be relied on in our courts by the citizen against the state. Our citizens, unlike the citizens of almost every other European country, have no such rights. Our country is bound by the convention. Our citizens are entitled to its protections. But to win them they have to go to a foreign court in Strasbourg, and that can take five years and often more. Why do we not trust our own judges to secure our convention rights for us but confine our citizens to the foreign court in Strasbourg?
We have a judiciary of high quality. Our most senior judges are as fine as any in the world. What a loss it is to the development of European jurisprudence in human rights that our judges are disabled from making a British contribution. We should be leading the development of human rights in Europe. Incorporation would repatriate from Strasbourg to Britain the day-to-day enjoyment of the rights to which our citizens are entitled under the convention.
I do not begin to accept that parliamentary sovereignty would be infringed by incorporation. Incorporation would be an exercise in sovereignty.
1461 Parliament would retain the right to repeal or amend the incorporating statute. Parliamentary sovereignty could be maintained by requiring that any statute intended to be inconsistent with the convention should say so expressly.
Another mechanism, which applies in New Zealand, obliges the courts, so far as possible, to interpret statutes and apply the common law so as to conform to the convention. It is not beyond our wit both to preserve parliamentary sovereignty and to allow our citizens access to their own courts to secure their rights under the convention.
A large part of the malaise that grips our country stems from a profound disillusion with its system of government. This Government are not trusted. Ministerial explanations are met with the deepest cynicism. A culture of secrecy flourishes. We have no freedom of information Act. Question Time in the other place is not question time; it is "No Answer Time". Citizens are denied in our courts basic rights against the state which are commonplace in the rest of Europe. Our institutions of government are not truly representative of those they are intended to serve. Quangos are a travesty of democracy.
Under the party opposite central government has become as autocratic as it is remote. There is urgent need for devolution of power from the centre to Scotland, to Wales, to the regions and to local communities. A major shift in the balance of power from the state in favour of the citizen is a high priority. "New Labour, New Danger" is a slogan that will convince no one—because the country has given up on this Government.
There are many powerful reasons why the country will return a Labour Government at the next Election. Not the least of these is that a Labour Government will fashion a new constitutional settlement which will return power to the people.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
My Lords, I cannot refrain from initially congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, on one of the most powerful debating speeches I have heard in this House. I join with him in saying how much we look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham.
As the Leader of the House knows, the choice of these two days for the debate presents me with very great difficulty. Indeed, he was kind enough to try, although unsuccessfully, to avoid these dates. As a result, I have an apology to make to the House in that, quite contrary to my usual habit, I shall not be able to stay for the rest of the debate. I hope that on this occasion I may be forgiven for my exceptional lapse from what is a very good custom of your Lordships' House.
The genesis of this long two-day debate, suddenly spatchcocked into our timetable at a very busy time of the Session, I find interesting. The Prime Minister suddenly announced that he was to make a great 1462 constitutional speech. There was heavy briefing that this would set the tone for an onslaught on the Opposition proposals, which he saw as one of the most promising ploys for the General Election. To this end, your Lordships' House is told to play a supporting role, so we are here with this interesting but unasked for debate. It is not a very dignified role. If there is one thing worse than being Lord Balfour's poodle, it is to be Mr. Major's poodle.
Therefore, the genesis of this debate is essentially political and polemic. That is a pity, for my instinctive feeling is to seek consensus on constitutional matters. Apart from anything else, once changes are made they are practically never reversible. That makes it desirable that they should not leave too many jagged edges. Such consensus is sometimes unobtainable, as was most notably the case in the first Parliament Act, even though that was only eventually carried with the help of a considerable number of Conservative Peers. The absence of consensus should not be an excuse for avoiding necessary and overdue action. Consensus sometimes cannot be reached, but it often is, as in many of the franchise extensions of the 19th century on Life Peers. However, it will not be reached without being sought, and it cannot be effectively sought on the basis of a blank resistance to all constitutional change which now seems to be untypically and unhistorically the position of the Conservative Party.
I come to devolution, with which the Lord Chancellor dealt this afternoon with his usual lucid authority, although not, I thought, quite with his usual constructiveness. In the 1970s I was a rather slow convert to devolution. I then thought that the scheme which ultimately emerged was flawed in several respects, mainly because it was too much directed to saving Labour seats in Scotland and not enough to working out a proper theoretical basis for limited self-government for Scotland. These views were reinforced by the five years which I surprisingly spent as a Member of Parliament for the Hillhead division of Glasgow, one of the most notable and also one of the most outward-looking constituencies in Scotland.
The flaws have been quite considerably corrected in what is now proposed, but they included the absence of any proposal for proportional representation which led, I have no doubt, to a very lively fear in the east of Scotland of domination by the Strathclyde caucus. Next, there was a dislike of judicial review which led to the Secretary of State being given a dangerous role, not as a midwife, but as an arbiter for the future. The lack of adequate powers, particularly in the economic field for the assembly, was also a flaw. I believe that tax-raising powers are right and necessary.
The point where I would draw the line is a different one. It would be against the assembly being empowered to run a budget deficit, because I believe that if it is allowed to do that, then one is on a road which may lead to a separate currency. I do not wish to create a new currency union at the price of building up an existing and longstanding currency union. I am certainly dedicated, as is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, to the 1463 preservation of the essence of the Union between England and Scotland. I am strongly opposed to reservation.
However, my Scottish experience strengthens my view that there is in Scotland a settled desire for greater control over its own affairs. This desire has perhaps been heightened by the fact that for 17 years, moving towards 18 years, what is in Scotland a small minority party has controlled the government of the United Kingdom. It has not been assuaged by the fact that, in my experience, successive Secretaries of State for Scotland have set a pattern of partisan patronage which would not have disgraced Dundas in the late eighteenth century. I believe that this feeling has exacerbated but not created the desire for greater Scottish control over their own affairs.
That is not to pretend that devolution is an easy question. Indeed, it bristles with difficulties.
The West Lothian question is one to which there is no wholly satisfactory answer. That is vividly illustrated by the treatment of roughly the same issue in the two failed Home Rule Bills for Ireland of 1886 and 1893. In the first Bill, the 1886 Bill, Irish Members were originally excluded from the Westminster Parliament but after several months of argument the Government shifted their position back to their inclusion for imperial purposes only. That was also in the first draft of the 1893 Bill. But the line between what was and what was not an imperial question proved so difficult to define that at the Committee stage the Government changed their mind again and went back to a position in which Irish members would be able to vote on anything.
Lurking behind the West Lothian question there is also what might be called the Kilbrandon question relating to the nearly 25 per cent. over-representation of Scotland at Westminster. The maintenance of that would, I think, be difficult to justify with effective devolution to Scotland.
So there are plenty of complications. But I do not believe that they begin to rival the dangers which would be involved in defying a settled wish of the majority of the Scottish people and once again disappointing hopes which have been legitimately raised.
I do not believe that Scottish and Irish parallels should be pushed too far. The degree of integration of Scotland with England is far greater than was ever the case with Ireland. To take the political level alone, nearly half of the British Prime Ministers of this century have had strong Scottish connections. It looks as though the next Labour Cabinet—if and when it is elected—will find it quite convenient to emulate the example of the Lloyd George Cabinet in 1921 and meet in the Inverness Town Hall.
Nevertheless, it is relevant to remember that there were few more tragically misplaced votes in your Lordships' House than that which produced the unprecedented majority of 419 to 41 to throw out on Second Reading the second Home Rule Bill. With that vote perished the hope of reconciling Ireland to the British connection. It was another 28 fatal years before this House reversed, in 1921, its disastrous 1893 decision. Whether wisdom or unwisdom 1464 prevailed, I do not see a repetition of that in Scotland—a repetition of the tragedy of Ireland's past 50 years under British rule. But it is an experience which we would be foolish not to have at the back of our minds.
Recalling the 1893 vote moves me for a very few minutes to the second main subject in these two days of debate, the reform of your Lordships' House. That has long been a difficult and elusive matter. I do not underestimate the disadvantages and dangers of turning this House into nothing but the biggest quango of the lot, with membership almost wholly at the disposal of the Prime Minister of the day with a few sops for other party leaders.
However, what I cannot begin to accept is the current Conservative doctrine that any attempt to restrain the right to sit and vote of hereditary Peers is an unheard of innovation, a constitutional monstrosity, a sign of barbarians at the gate and an undermining of the defences of the monarchy. It has been widely recognised for a hundred years that the composition of your Lordships' House is theoretically indefensible. That could hardly be more vividly illustrated than by the fact that the survival of this House has only been made possible by absenteeism. If the cohorts of hereditary Conservative Peers were to turn up every afternoon and troop into the Tory Lobby, as they did on that unfortunate September day in 1893 and as they have occasionally done since, the problems of the Chief Whip might be fewer but the House would never survive. They also serve who only stay away.
But one cannot found a defence of principle upon absenteeism. That has been recognised throughout this century. Lord Newton in 1907 wanted to eliminate three-quarters of the hereditary Peers. He was supported by the Dukes of Devonshire and Northumberland who, presumably, thought that they would be in the quarter and not the three-quarters, and by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lord Rosebery in 1910 wanted it accepted that the position of an hereditary peerage no longer gave the right to sit and vote. Lord Lansdowne, as Conservative Leader, in 1911 wanted the number of hereditaries brought down to 150. In 1933, that notorious revolutionary, the fourth Marquess of Salisbury, the great-grandfather of the Leader of the House, had another go at the same restriction to 150. In 1967–68 the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, together with Mr. kin MacLeod, agreed to an all-party scheme by which existing hereditaries would lose the right to vote and their successors the right to sit.
That long chronical may, on the one hand, be taken as evidence that reforming the Lords is about as difficult as grasping an eel. On the other hand, it exposes the farce of the modern Conservative Party treating the invasion of the hereditary principle as a dastardly depredation. I find it increasingly difficult to understand the perverse dichotomy by which this Government threaten so many established institutions which work well—from HMSO to the Post Office to Civil Service recruitment to the BBC World Service—and, on the other hand, recoil in mock horror from any change to 1465 our constitutional arrangements which in many ways, after a long period of near inability, have come to work badly and are widely perceived so to do.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ Lord Bingham of Cornhill
My Lords, I hope I may be permitted to preface my observations, brief and uncontroversial as they will be, by expressing my thanks to your Lordships for the warmth of the welcome that I have received both at my introduction a week ago and since. It is a matter of universal regret that the occasion should have arisen for the appointment of a new Lord Chief Justice to succeed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Taylor of Gosforth. No one is more acutely aware of that than I. But your Lordships' sense of loss has not in any way diluted or masked the friendly reception which has been accorded to me and for that I am most sincerely grateful.
The noble Lords who have already spoken have touched on matters of fundamental importance to our nation and people. These are deep and turbulent waters into which only powerful and experienced swimmers are wise to venture. Your Lordships will, I hope, understand if I myself linger in a modest and maidenly manner in the shallow end.
There is just one issue upon which, with your Lordships' leave, I wish to touch; that is, the constitutional relationship between the British courts, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the current status of the European convention in our courts. I raise that topic not to argue any case, but to record where, as I understand, we now are on the principle that it is desirable to know where one is before deciding where, if anywhere, one wishes to go.
The starting point is, of course, that we are a state that ratified the convention; we are bound in international law to honour the obligations which we have undertaken. When any breach of the convention has been established on the part of any public authority, we are bound to amend our laws and procedures to make good the breach and prevent a recurrence. That is an obligation which has, I believe, been scrupulously observed by successive governments of both political colours.
But the convention is not part of our domestic law. The courts have no powers to enforce convention rights directly. If domestic legislation plainly conflicts with the enforcement of the convention, then the courts apply the domestic legislation. That is a principle which your Lordships' House, sitting judicially, has unambiguously laid down and it is a rule which the courts have loyally observed, despite ingenious and persistent invitations by counsel to depart from it.
In some countries treaties, once ratified, have the force of law. That is not so here and it is that fact which gives continuing vitality to the debate on incorporation. It might be thought to follow from that that the convention is a matter for Parliament and the Government, with which the courts have nothing whatever to do. But that, I suggest, would not be entirely right and I hope that your Lordships will permit me to 1466 touch briefly on six respects in which I suggest the convention can, and in practice does, have an influence in our domestic proceedings.
First, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor observed, where a United Kingdom statute is capable of two interpretations, one consistent with the convention and one inconsistent, then the courts will presume that Parliament intended to legislate in conformity with the convention and not in conflict with it. In other words, the courts will presume that Parliament did not intend to legislate in violation of international law. That may be thought by your Lordships to be a modest presumption.
Secondly, if the common law is uncertain, unclear or incomplete, the courts have to make a choice; they cannot abdicate their power of decision. In declaring what the law is, they will rule, wherever possible, in a manner which conforms with the convention and does not conflict with it. Any other course would be futile since a rule laid down in defiance of the convention would be likely to prove short-lived.
There is, of course, one field—freedom of expression—in which respected Members of this House have declared that they see no inconsistency between the common law and the convention. That is reassuring; it is also wholly unsurprising since we have a long record as a pioneer in the field of freedom of expression. But it means that the courts are encouraged to look to the convention and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights when resolving problems on the common law.
Thirdly, when the courts are called upon to construe a domestic statute enacted to fulfil a convention obligation, the courts will ordinarily assume that the statute was intended to be effective to that end. That is mere common sense, but common sense is the stock-in-trade of much judicial decision-making.
Fourthly, where the courts have a discretion to exercise—that is, they can act in one way or another, one of which violates the convention and the other of which does not—they seek to act in a way which does not violate the convention. That again is usually common sense and requires no elaboration. However, it is not an invariable rule and your Lordships' House, sitting judicially, gave an important judgment only yesterday in which the convention right to privacy was held to be obliged to give way to the greater interests of justice.
Fifthly, when, as sometimes happens, the courts are called upon to decide what, in a given situation, public policy demands, it has been held to be legitimate that we shall have regard to our international obligations enshrined in the convention as a source of guidance on what British public policy requires.
Sixthly and lastly, matters covered by the law of the European Community—that is, the law administered by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and not Strasbourg—on occasion give effect to matters covered by convention law. The Court of Justice takes the view that on matters subject to Community law, the law common to the member states is part of the law which applies. All member states are parties to the convention 1467 and it so happens from time to time that laws derived from the convention are incorporated as part of the law of the Community. That of course is a law which the courts in this country must apply since we are bound by Act of Parliament to do so, and that is a means by which, indirectly, convention rights find their way into domestic law.
Your Lordships will be relieved to know that no sudden access of imagination or invention has led to multiplication of my six points. I am grateful for the courtesy with which your Lordships listened to me. My only regret is that business elsewhere prevents me from hearing all the weighty contributions which will undoubtedly be made before this two-day debate is concluded.
§ 4.28 p.m.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, it is a pleasure for me to congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, on his maiden speech. I do so on behalf of the Whole House. Until recently he has been Master of the Rolls and before that he held with distinction other high judicial appointments. He speaks to us with authority, great experience and wit. We will look forward keenly to hearing him again on future occasions.
I thank my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for his introduction to the debate. On 4th July last year we had a debate in your Lordships' House about the government of Scotland, initiated by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun. On that occasion I pointed out problems and defects in the Labour Party's proposals as they then were. I intend to go on from that and comment on them as they appear today.
I still find the intention to pass legislation in the first Session, if a Labour Government were in office, to establish a parliament in Scotland, strange and lacking in credibility. It took a Labour Government from 1975 to 1979 to produce the Scotland Act—four years to produce an Act which contained serious defects and which many thought would be unworkable. That process included a White Paper, revised three times; a Scotland and Wales Bill introduced into Parliament and then withdrawn, and the Scotland Bill, whose passage through both Houses consumed much parliamentary time. Memories seem to be short and the cast has changed. Most of the Labour Party leaders of today were not involved in that long process. How can a workable, stable, new system of parliamentary governance be produced and taken through Parliament in a single Session, preceded, according to last week's announcement, by one or perhaps two referendums? It is impossible to carry out a thorough job in that time and to produce an effective new parliament functioning alongside the United Kingdom Parliament and working compatibly with it.
During those four years, 1975 to 1979, I was dealing continuously with all the stages—White Papers, debates and Bills on this subject—in this House from the Opposition Front Bench. Although that was 20 years' ago I remember clearly the course of events; the changes and withdrawals of proposals; the twists and turns and 1468 the final eclipse of the Scotland Act in the referendum. I was always positive in examining the proposals, but I did have the duty of pointing out the flaws, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, admitted today in his speech. However, I must take up the assertion in his speech in strong terms that all Conservative Secretaries of State have indulged in blatant patronage in their appointments. With modesty, I speak as the longest-living former Secretary of State. I certainly appointed many with other political views. I repudiate that assertion where I am concerned and I challenge any evidence to be produced to the contrary concerning the four years when I was Secretary of State.
The Scotland Act 1978, which would have established an assembly with defined, limited powers, had two major defects. It had not solved the West Lothian problem. I remind your Lordships that Scottish MPs at Westminster would have discussed and voted on English and UK subjects, but English MPs could not have dealt with the equivalent Scottish subjects. Further—and this is sometimes overlooked although it was disagreeable for Scottish MPs at Westminster—Scottish MPs could not deal with a wide range of Scottish subjects at Westminster affecting their Scottish constituencies. They were subjects such as housing, health and education, which their constituents felt strongly about and wanted them to act upon. The only attempt to solve the problem in the Scotland Act was a clumsy arrangement in Section 66 for a 14-day moratorium after Second Reading at Westminster, to enable consultation, second thoughts and a further division to take place, if needed. To any parliamentarian who has spent several years in the Commons, that was a ludicrous, cosmetic way of addressing a crucial constitutional issue.
The Royal Commission on the Constitution, chaired first by Lord Crowther and then, after he died, by Lord Kilbrandon, after four-and-a-half years of inquiry, suggested that, if a Scottish assembly were to be established, the number of Scottish seats at Westminster should be reduced. That seems a possible fruitful area in which to look if a solution is to be found to the West Lothian anomaly. It has to be acceptable, however, both north and south of the Border.
A precedent was set in the 1920 Settlement in Northern Ireland establishing the mini-Parliament there in the arrangements for the partition of Ireland. Fewer Ulster MPs at Westminster were prescribed deliberately than would have been the entitlement on the basis of population. Instead of 17 Members of Parliament (the entitlement) there were 12, not counting the university seat which was later abolished.
Looking at Scotland now, there are 72 Scottish seats: on a population basis compared with England, there would be about 56. If the ratio used in 1920 in Northern Ireland of 12 to 17 were applied, the number of MPs for Scotland at Westminster would be 39 instead of today's 72. This reduction in the number of MPs representing Scotland would no doubt be opposed for several good reasons. However, it is most unlikely in any case that a Labour Government would initiate it because at present Labour holds a large number of Scottish seats.
1469 The second major defect in the Scotland Act 1978 was the division of executive powers. The Secretary of State was to retain more than half of his existing functions while the assembly was to create an executive of its own to exercise the other functions. That was a formula for ambiguity and strife. It would have created an arena for conflict and mismanagement, with two executives trying to administer Scotland. That seems to have been accepted now. The present proposals may remove part of this defect, because the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland is apparently to be abolished altogether. Presumably, the present functions of the Scottish Office would be the business of the proposed parliament. There is not to be a division of those executive powers this time. Does that mean that a chief Minister and other Ministers in the parliament, would be elected or appointed to replace the Secretary of State? Would the Scottish Office, with its 7,000 civil servants, be taken over in its present state or would a new executive, working for the new parliament, be formed? The elected members of a new parliament in Scotland could not by themselves perform the administration of Scotland.
What would happen to the special personal duties of the Secretary of State, which he cannot delegate to his junior Ministers or civil servants; for example, deciding on warrants for telephone tapping by the police or on the release of patients from Carstairs, the Scottish equivalent of Broadmoor, and similar functions performed personally by him and by the Home Secretary for England and Wales? There are a host of queries and problems of this kind which will arise.
I turn to taxation. The Scotland Act assembly did not have the power to raise taxes. That led to criticism that it had little scope to decide on priorities; also that it would continuously be blaming Westminster and the Treasury for not providing enough in block grants, even if the present ratio in favour of Scotland were maintained. The arguments in that controversy demonstrated the extreme difficulty in setting up an acceptable assembly. It also reversed a slogan of two centuries' ago: in this case it was, "No representation without taxation". The present proposals include power to increase or lower taxation by 3p in the basic rate of income tax. Again, that has become highly controversial, demonstrating the difficulties. Three pence is relatively insignificant on the overall financial scene, as the Constitution Unit's report pointed out last week. It applies only to basic-rate taxpayers, so that Parliament would not be able to reduce taxation for the needy and would be entirely dependent on the tax thresholds decided on for the UK as a whole by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
There are those who blithely state that taxpayers would gladly pay more in Scotland for improved services. I doubt if many basic-rate taxpayers would, in the secrecy of the ballot box, vote for a policy of paying more income tax than their counterparts in England and Wales. It would not be popular with that part of the electorate which might be termed "middle Scotland".
A second referendum is now proposed on whether there should be tax-raising powers. This underlines the controversial nature of the proposal. The main 1470 referendum will apparently be held before any set of proposals has been prepared. It would be based on the wide, vague and general concept of devolution. What would be the question? Would the question be, "Are you in favour of devolution for Scotland"? To my knowledge, there are at least 100 variations of devolution—more varieties than even Mr. Heinz thought of.
Massive administrative devolution already exists. The subject of the 1979 referendum was the 1978 Act. The question was straightforward. The electorate simply had to state whether or not they wanted the Act to be put into effect. It was a short, simple question on an unambiguous subject. The Act contained the system then proposed and a large amount of detail for those who wished to examine it closely. To hold a referendum before producing a proposed system is to put the cart before the horse.
In 1978–79 opinion polls regularly reported that about 70 per cent. of the public in Scotland favoured an assembly. It was not very different from polling the public in northern England on whether or not they were in favour of decentralisation. The result was much the same percentage. However, when a particular scheme—the proposals in the Scotland Act—was under scrutiny its defects and drawbacks were clear to many and a very different percentage supported it. Only 33 per cent. supported it and, ignoring the decimal points, those against amounted to 31 per cent. of the Scots population. Because of the 40 per cent. threshold requirement, under the provisions of the Act itself it had to be repealed. Will there be a similar threshold of 40 per cent. or another figure in any new Scotland Bill?
In the last referendum in 1979 there were grievances among Scots who could not take part because they were not resident in Scotland at the time. Some of them were only temporarily absent. Because the United Kingdom is a successful economic and social entity, Scots move to employment south of the Border and English move north. In addition, the Border is not a barrier to marriages across it, taking husband or wife to the other side of it. The referendum in 1979 was designed for residents in Scotland at the time who were on the electoral roll. In this context, it is misleading to use the over-simplified description "the Scottish people" for contemporary residents in Scotland. A referendum of that kind may well be useful in providing information, but it leaves out many Scots and includes a miscellaneous minority of non-Scots. This is the kind of difficulty which arises from a referendum.
A referendum based on a vague idea of devolution before the structure and functions of the new body have been formulated and discussed in this Parliament would obscure from the public's attention major constitutional changes. For example, one such change is to deprive a Scottish parliament of a second chamber or access to the House of Lords. Another is to adopt a system of elections under which about one-third of members would not be elected but appointed by political parties, which is a strange and alien concept in Scotland.
The question remains: why is the Labour Party attempting an immensely complicated operation at break-neck speed, given that it took four years to get 1471 nowhere last time? The Leader of the Opposition, the right honourable gentleman Mr. Tony Blair, is reported in the press as saying that he wants to be the first Prime Minister to do it. I hope that for Scotland's sake he will not stake his reputation on achieving it in one Session of Parliament. I predict that, should Labour come to office, a reason will be found—some convenient new development—for postponing action on this part of its manifesto.
I can tell your Lordships and the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, that I have been consistent in this matter. I have never stood simply for the status quo. Changes and improvements can and are being made. I applaud the changes that have been made in recent years to the role of Scottish committees and their meetings in Scotland, which has been further developed by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Forsyth. Previously, the Scottish sector of Parliament and its procedures were virtually unknown and invisible north of the Border. The Public Galleries at Westminster were little used by visiting Scots. I was able to give a push to the process of change during the years when I was Secretary of State.
In any move to create an assembly in Scotland, two factors require careful thought. First, it must be part of a stable and workable system. If it is not, it will play into the hands of separatists. The SNP is opposed to devolution but would take advantage of instability. It would try to use a new devolved institution as a half-way house to independence and the break-up of the United Kingdom. Secondly, I believe that every speaker taking part in this debate supports retention of the Union. The argument is about the nature and degree of proposed changes and the speed with which any of them is carried out. It would be contrary to the wishes of all Members of your Lordships' House if the Union were broken up, not deliberately but by mischance, during a devolutionary process. As far as concerns Scotland, the parliamentary system in the United Kingdom has been evolving for well over a century, and it is still evolving. Surely, it is better to build carefully on those foundations rather than run the serious risk of damaging a stable structure to produce a brittle house of straw.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lord Merlyn-Rees
My Lords, in speaking in favour of devolution I have no wish to break up the United Kingdom, with its flexible Constitution. I take pride in the fact that I was once a Minister of the Crown in the Government of the United Kingdom. I learned the importance of the Crown as a cement of the Union. I value my membership of your Lordships' House which has enabled me to listen to the maiden speech this afternoon of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill. It was a privilege.
I speak only on English regional government, which has not been mentioned so far. If I were to speak on Wales and Scotland I would support the views of my noble friend on the Opposition Front Bench. I support a detailed White Paper before a referendum. After many years, I now live in Wales again. It has set me thinking 1472 about whether I would have the vote in such a referendum if it was based upon a parliamentary register. If so, I would vote for it on that occasion.
I shall he brief, not least because I have no excuse for not staying here for the rest of the day. In the past two or three years I have been impressed by the tide of events which has led to more regional government in England in particular. There are 10 government integrated regional offices, which were established in 1993. They employ nearly 3,000 staff. Their annual running costs amount to £90 million. They are responsible for administering, directing or advising upon £6 billion of public expenditure in England. There is no control over them, except that they work upwards and not downwards. But the work that they do is of very great importance.
I have discovered in practical terms since leaving the other place—I am involved in charitable work in Yorkshire—that the advantage of having a regional office is not as great as having a Welsh Office or Scottish Office. But the position is developing. The 10 directors of the IROs have had such great influence that the then director of the Confederation of British Industry dubbed them "prefects". They were senior officials first established by Napoleon to enforce the will of the French central government.
There is a form of regional government in this country which has developed considerably in recent years. The weakness of the system is that it does not work to people who are involved in the regions or elected in the regions. They do not have the benefit of any formal regional level of advice. But in that respect the tide is flowing towards regional government. We should take steps to harness it.
There is another reason in England. It is the case also in Wales. It is the great development of quangos that has taken place under all governments, but particularly under the present government. Somehow regional government, in whatever form it takes, should take account of that. My advice would be to take English regional government slowly. What form of regional government? Steps are being taken towards regional government. I have no panacea for regional government. But given the local government reform that has taken place, English regional government is something about which we should think and talk after we have dealt with Scotland and Wales.
There is often a tide in the affairs of government, as we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. In the last century—I picked this point up when reading his book recently—there was a great drive—the tide often went in different directions—to extend the franchise. It took 20, 30 or 40 years to develop, but the tide existed. There is a similar tide at the moment in favour of regional government.
Local authorities are constructing their own forms of representative regional groupings. In Yorkshire, there is Yorkshire and Humberside, and so on. It is taking place. There should be room for experimentation. For many years at the end of the war I sat at the feet of Karl Popper. From him I learnt the importance of 1473 decentralisation; that centralisation can bring evils with it—necessary in wartime—but decentralisation is important.
The task is to use the trend towards regional government which is taking place in England to the benefit of the nation. It is not enough to be a latter-day King Canute with regard to regional government. It is happening. We should use it and harness it for democracy. In finishing at that point after a steady five minutes, perhaps I shall be able to slip out and have a cup of tea before the debate finishes.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks and appreciation to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, for instructing us so clearly on where we stand today in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights. Your Lordships have heard today that the issue of constitutional change is an important one. It is an inevitable one. It has been pushed to the forefront of the political arena at this stage both in your Lordships' House and another place for a purely political reason. It is thought that there is great scope for frightening the electorate that there is a danger of the break-up of the UK in the Labour Party's proposal for devolution, when there is no such danger.
I should like to begin by quoting what for me was the start of the national debate on our constitution. It began in 1976 when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham—I am sorry that he is not in his place at the moment—delivered the Dimbleby Lecture on "The Elective Dictatorship". Let me quote him in what I believe was an enlightened Conservative view at that time—very different from some of the views that we shall hear today. He came towards his conclusion of that interesting lecture with the words:I have reached the conclusion that our constitution is wearing out. Its central defects are gradually coming to outweigh its merits, and its central defects consist in the absolute powers we confer on our sovereign body, and the concentration of those powers in an executive government formed out of one party which may not fairly represent the popular will".He continued:I envisage nothing less than a written constitution for the United Kingdom".He went on to develop his theme with which I did not greatly disagree.
Before I leave that interesting lecture, I should like to quote another part where the noble and learned Lord dealt with the issue of nationalism with which he said he had considerable sympathy. He said:If they only wished to achieve their purpose within the ambit of a new federal constitution, I can see nothing unreasonable about their aim. After all, nations as diverse as the Swiss, the Americans, the Canadians, the Australians and the Germans have all managed to achieve stability, efficiency, and prosperity on these very lines. So far as we are concerned it is at least arguable that it was our failure to come to terms with federalism in any form which led to the severance of our connexion with Ireland and therefore to the partition of the British Isles, with all the misery that that has entailed".1474 The noble and learned Lord followed the lecture two years later with a book entitled The Dilemma of Democracy. It behoves noble Lords opposite to refresh their memories of the views that he put forward in those days on the changes to the British constitution that he thought were inevitable as we faced the pressures of modern times.
We in Europe are moving inexorably to a form of a united Europe which will almost certainly eventually result in some kind of federalism, probably a different form from what has been experienced in the world so far, although on federal principles. The real debate is not whether it will happen but when and how it will happen. For example, at the moment in Wales alone 30 per cent. of the employment is provided by inward investment by companies which invest not particularly because it is Wales, and they find it a congenial place, but because it is part of the European Community where power lies.
I was involved with the building of the Severn Bridge. Nearly half the investment for that came from the European Investment Bank. A good deal of the other investment—it is all by way of loans, as a matter of fact—came from other European and international banks.
The founding fathers of Europe envisaged that the development of Europe would push us gradually in the direction of a politically united Europe. We are seeing it happen. The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, in his short but effective contribution, said that administrative regional centres in England were already developing. That is important. It started like that in Wales before we got as far as having a Secretary of State. It started much earlier in Scotland. It will inevitably evolve over the next decade. We must remember that the speed of development in communication, science, weaponry for defence, and so on, has made it imperative that we change our modes of thought on this matter equally speedily.
We face pressures from outside, from Europe. We face pressures inside, because we have the most centralised government in Europe. Already in Europe, Germany has a federal constitution, put in place largely with our help after the war; in France, there has been considerable devolution in that highly centralised country; in Spain, we are seeing the development of regional governments. That will lead to some form of federalism. That is happening throughout Europe.
We are in a state of flux at the present time. The Labour Party's proposals are an essential step on the way. If Labour's plans for Scotland are put in place, it will not be the end of evolution for Scottish government. If the assembly for Wales is put in place, that might well be the model for future developments in the regions of England, because there are great advantages in decentralisation. The whole ethos of the development of Europe is that it will move eventually towards a federal Europe. In time, whether it be 20, 30 or 100 years—I do not know—a constitution will eventually be formalised there. However, on the way we have to look at our own history and our own background and think what is the natural next step for us.
1475 Surely, the natural next step for us is to have an experimental Parliament in Scotland and an experimental Assembly in Wales. In so far as those are desirable ends, and I believe that they are wholly so, they will be a pattern from which we can learn for the future development of the United Kingdom.
There is no danger of a break-up of the United Kingdom. Britain was evolved partly through conquest, as happened with Wales, partly through marriage, as was the case with the Orkneys and Shetland, and partly through a non-democratically approved union with Scotland. In fact, we have lived together for so long that within Europe we will be natural allies in any event, however much devolution we have. There is no danger whatever of a break-up of the United Kingdom.
I believe that the debate on constitutional change is a step on the way to an effective devolution of power with the knowledge that in this country one of our worst handicaps is the excessive concentration of power in London. It is time that the whole process was reversed.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Lord Donaldson of Lymington
My Lords, notwithstanding the constraints of time I must join in the universal welcome which has been accorded to my noble and learned friend Lord Bingham of Cornhill. His speech was as elegant as those of his erstwhile colleagues would have expected. It was also as informative as we would have expected and, if it was perforce uncontroversial, I have no doubt that future editions would be of a different character for, above all, he is his own man.
I had intended to talk exclusively about the European Court of Human Rights. However, I hope that I shall be forgiven if I have been tempted into a minor deviation by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. He informed the House, quite correctly as one would expect, that the Treaty of Rome and all the associated European legislation took effect in this country only by virtue of the will of Parliament. He went on to say that, of course, it would be open to Parliament at any time to provide that the Treaty of Rome did not have any bearing on particular provisions. I wonder whether some Euro-sceptics may not pick that up and we may not have a spate of small amendments to statutes. It is easily done. In fact, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor might be interested to know that the Government did it on Monday. It was in the course of the Asylum and Immigration Bill. A clause was introduced with the somewhat novel words:Notwithstanding any enactment or rule of law",the Minister shall have a regulation-making power. The Minister was asked what on earth that meant. Was it intended to exclude the right of judicial review? He stoutly denied that it was. He said, "Oh, no. It is certainly open to the courts to review the regulations". We all went home wondering what the purpose of it was. Now we know. It circumvents the whole of the Treaty of Rome and all the associated legislation which goes with it. But that is a deviation.
1476 I return to the Strasbourg court, which is wholly different from the Luxembourg court. That is an essential court; if you have a supra-national legislature you must have a supra-national court to interpret its legislation. The Strasbourg court is different. It depends for its raison d'être entirely upon a single treaty. It is a very special treaty. It was produced in the 1950s as a follow-up to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, in order to try to differentiate between those countries very much in people's minds at that time which were plainly dictatorial and undemocratic and the older democracies which had common values that we describe as democratic.
I very much doubt whether it was ever intended to give rise to detailed justiciable rights in individuals. I believe rather that it was intended to set a general benchmark by which it was possible to judge which countries were and which countries were not properly described as democracies.
I know of nothing in the text of the treaty with which any Member of this House or the other place would disagree for one moment. But it is in very broad, general terms. It is subject to a number of expressed exceptions. Above all, it is subject in a large number of places to an exception which reads:Except as may be prescribed by law and is necessary in a democratic society".The crucial question is: who is going to decide that? Of course, prescription by law is a matter for national parliaments and, as far as we are concerned, for this Parliament. But who is going to decide whether that law is necessary in a democratic society?
As I understand it, the Opposition would take the view that in the last resort that must be decided by the court in Strasbourg. However, I query whether the judges of that court, distinguished though they are, have the necessary qualifications to do it. What is necessary in a particular democratic society depends in some measure, perhaps in large measure, on what are the traditions of that country and on what are the particular circumstances affecting that country at the time. Is there any reason to believe that the numerous judges, all drawn from other countries bar one, have any special expertise and capacity to decide that?
Even if they have, one must look at the competing possible authorities. It has been suggested that a competing possible authority would be the United Kingdom courts. The judges would, of course, be familiar with the traditions of this country. They would, of course, be familiar with the problems which were facing the country at the time. But is it really right that the judges should be asked to say that that which has perhaps only recently been prescribed by law by Parliament was not necessary in a democratic society? It would produce a most startling conflict between the judiciary and Parliament. I for my part would deplore it wholeheartedly, not least because it would be extremely difficult for Parliament to relegislate when the judges had reached such a declaration. It would be particularly difficult for the active judicial Members of this House who perhaps on the final appeal would have declared that their colleagues in a legislative capacity had produced an enactment which was not necessary in a democratic society.
1477 What other candidates are there? The obvious candidate is Parliament. With greater or lesser success down the ages, Parliament has for centuries been safeguarding the rights and freedoms of the people of this country. If the Opposition want to make good the suggestion of change they must first point to the respects in which Parliament has failed in its duty to the people. I am not talking about individual political policies; I am talking in terms of fundamental rights and freedoms. Let them show in what respect Parliament has failed. If they do I suggest that the right remedy is reform of Parliament, not referring the matter either to the judges, for reasons which I have already given, or to an outside body on which the United Kingdom is in a minority representation.
The truth of the matter is that there is a vast confusion of thought here. Over the past few years, since I gave up the trappist aspect of being in full-time judicial appointment, I have expressed the strongest possible disapproval of some of the activities of the Home Secretary and the Home Office. Only this week I was expressing some disapproval of the Government's proposals in relation to the Asylum and Immigration Bill. Of course, I could go round suggesting that those proposals in each case involved some breach of fundamental rights and freedoms. If I did that, I think that I would be abusing language and would be mistaken.
One really must go much further than saying that you profoundly disagree with a policy before you can say legitimately that it involves a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms. I believe that if a majority of this House and the other place decides that something is necessary in a democratic society and carries laws prescribing that result, I shall simply have to say that that would not be my view but that it is the view of the majority so I must reluctantly accept that I am wrong, whatever private reservations I may have.
Far from incorporating the convention and far from giving us direct rights to appeal from the English courts to the Strasbourg court, I should negotiate with a view to modifying the treaty so that citizens had no right at all to go to the Strasbourg court. That is not to say that there would be no function for the Strasbourg court. It should go back to what I believe was its original function; namely, to mark out the differences between democratic countries and dictatorships and to highlight real and unarguable breaches of fundamental rights and freedoms.
It could still do that by giving declaratory judgments. A declaratory judgment, whether against this country or any other, would focus the attention of Members of Parliament on whether the legislation was right and would enable them, if necessary, to have second thoughts. If they refused to have second thoughts, as well they might, then it would focus world opinion and they would take account of that. But any move in any other direction as has been indicated this evening, I personally would deplore.
§ 5.13 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Gwydir
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, not only on the quality of his speech but in particular on its brevity. I shall try my best to follow his example and be brief.
I shall restrict my remarks to the devolutionary policies of the Labour Party which in my view are a direct threat to the cohesion and stability of the United Kingdom. I do not intend to say much about the proposed Scottish parliament with its legislative and tax-raising powers, except that I agree with the views expressed by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy.
In particular, my noble friend Lord Campbell mentioned the West Lothian question which asks why Scottish MPs at Westminster should be able to vote on purely English matters while English MPs will have no say over matters devolved to a Scottish parliament. So far, we have not had an answer to that particular question. It is inevitable that there will be a reduction in the numbers of Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster if that parliament comes into effect.
In the short time for which I intend to speak, I shall confine my remarks to Labour's devolution plan for Wales, which, as the House knows, is to establish an elected assembly in Cardiff with no legislative or tax-raising powers; in other words, it is the establishment of an expensive political and bureaucratic talking shop with no fiscal autonomy.
The reason why no parliament such as that proposed for Scotland is proposed for Wales is quite simple. It is because there is very little appetite in Wales, in particular among traditional Labour supporters there, for any change. They know that the Union with England and Westminster serves Welsh interests well. They know also that home rule in any form would sooner or later lead to constitutional conflict or deadlock which would undermine that Union.
Much has been said about Mr. Blair's announcement that before acting on those proposals, a Labour Government would hold referendums. Mr. Blair has been strongly criticised for that but I do not do so. He is a clever man and, in that respect, has acted wisely. To use his own words, he was haunted by the spectre of 1979, and that was referred to by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy.
In 1979, the then Labour Government had battled in Westminster to establish by legislation parliaments for Scotland and Wales. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said, they battled for four years. The result of all that endeavour was that in March 1979, their policies were ignominiously defeated in two referendums. In Wales, the defeat was four to one—20 per cent. in favour and 80 per cent. against. Not a single part of Wales returned a verdict in favour of the proposals.
I believe—and I would not be surprised if Mr. Blair believes—that if the Labour Party wins the next election and calls a referendum, the proposal for a Welsh assembly would be soundly defeated.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Lord Sewel
My Lords, I start by apologising to the House that, because of a commitment at my own university tomorrow, I shall be unable to stay for the second day of the debate.
The distinctive feature of the present system of government in Scotland is that it is lopsided. Through the Scottish Office, we undoubtedly have administrative devolution but without—and this is the important point—any matching legislative devolution. Therefore, the aim of our proposals on devolution is simply to provide legislative devolution in order to ensure that Scottish legislation is more responsive to Scottish values, principles and priorities and, as importantly, to make the Executive accountable within Scotland. Those are the objectives of the whole plan and proposal.
What we propose for Scotland should also be seen in the wider context—and that has been referred to briefly in passing—of the development of regional levels of government throughout the whole of the Western democracies, especially within Europe. The nation state is evolving but we sometimes seem to be timid, to be afraid, of moving away from anything which is not a tightly and narrowly defined model of the unitary state. We are in danger of our thinking being trapped in an increasingly irrelevant time-warp.
In reality, we are actually living in a world where it is recognised, more so day by day, that it is appropriate to look at different levels of decision making. Some decisions are taken, quite appropriately, at the European level, while others are taken at the level of the individual state. But there is increasingly a recognition that more and more of the sorts of decision which impinge directly on the day-to-day lives of our citizens ought to be taken at a level below that of the state—rather, they should be taken at the regional level to allow for variety and diversity and for local solutions to local problems.
As my noble friend Lord Irvine of Lairg indicated, there is widespread support for the concept of subsidiarity; indeed, it is trotted out time and again in relation to Europe. But subsidiarity does not stop at the level of the nation state: it goes a lot deeper and a lot further. With others, I am intent on preserving and strengthening the Union, but I want a Union not based on a sterile uniformity but on a rich and active diversity. That is what devolution makes possible.
Of course, our critics and opponents point to the so-called West Lothian question—indeed, they have already done so today, understandably—and somehow put forward the argument that it presents an insuperable obstacle to devolution. A Parliament for Scotland does not raise a new constitutional issue.
§ Lord Sewel
No, my Lords. The British constitution has already adapted to and accommodated regional parliaments: it is already there. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 has already been quoted. That was one accommodation to regional government.
§ Lord Sewel
My Lords, we will come to that.
Members of Parliament from Ireland sat in a British House of Commons voting on Great Britain legislation while Members from England, Wales and Scotland did not vote on Irish domestic legislation. However, let us bring the argument up to date. At present, the Government in their own proposals for the future government of Northern Ireland do not recognise a North Antrim question; indeed, they are silent on that issue. Further, the Government do not seek to disturb the basis of Northern Ireland's representation in the House of Commons.
As regards the financing of a Scottish parliament, it will be necessary to ensure that such a parliament is funded on a fair and just basis. That is not the same as saying that expenditure per head of population should be the same throughout the different parts and elements of the United Kingdom. In regional systems, an important role of the central government is to distribute revenues to the various regional bodies on the basis of some assessment of need.
One of the proposals that has attracted the greatest interest, and some controversy, is the tax varying power of the parliament. It was the late Lord Home who identified the need to give a Scottish assembly some control over taxation. Lord Home rightly recognised that a modest degree of fiscal responsibility was necessary in order to prevent the proposed assembly from blaming the allegedly inadequate level of central block grant for its own inability to provide services at the level that it might wish. Fiscal responsibility produces a matching political responsibility. That is central and important.
Noble Lords will also expect me to refer to the question of a referendum. I am not actually a great advocate of referenda. That is perhaps because I taught French politics for a little too long. But the creation of a new parliament is a major constitutional change and deserves the special and specific endorsement of the people which is possible through a referendum. Popular endorsement through a referendum makes more likely a stable and enduring settlement. Within a system of parliamentary sovereignty, that is perhaps the closest that we can come to some form of entrenchment.
The question for the party opposite—and it is the one to which my noble friend Lord Irvine of Lairg referred—is: after a general election and the endorsement by the electorate of a Labour manifesto containing the commitment to devolution, and after a subsequent referendum on a clear White Paper proposal; in other words, after those two specific endorsements, will the party opposite accept that as a clear and definitive expression of the settled will of the Scottish people? That is the question which must be asked. We have not as yet received an answer.
I turn now to the argument that devolution is the first step on the slippery slope to separatism. I recognise the sincerity with which that view is held by some noble Lords. But, I believe it is a view which is profoundly mistaken. Surely in this place of all places we should 1481 recognise that separation comes about not as a result of recognising the legitimate aspirations of people for domestic parliaments, but as a result of opposing them. We have the paintings to remind us.
More recently, we can look to Spain and see that the creation of strong provincial government, especially in Catalonia, has led to the collapse of what had previously been a powerful separatist movement. Far from being the first step on the slippery slope—and I agree with my noble friend Lord Irvine of Lairg in this respect—devolution is a bulwark against separatism.
Finally, perhaps I may briefly refer to my own history. I was born in Hackney and brought up in Bradford in the north of England, my first job was in South Wales and I have lived for most of my life in the north-east of Scotland. If I believed that devolution would lead to the break-up of the Union, I would oppose it with all my might. I do not believe that that is the case: rather, devolution to Scotland is the first stage in a process that will create a new Union, a stronger Union, one based on diversity and one in which government, because it is decentralised, will be more responsive to the people.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I must begin by apologising to the House because, as I have already explained to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, I cannot be present for much of the remainder of the debate. Therefore, exceptionally, I must seek the indulgence of the House in that respect.
I should like to begin by expressing my great personal pleasure on being present in the Chamber to hear the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, who, if I may say so, is the epitome of all that is finest in the senior English judiciary, as has already been said by several speakers. I look forward to hearing the noble and learned Lord when he is less maidenly in the future.
We are asked by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in this important debate to,take note of the United Kingdom's existing constitutional settlement".That is a daunting task; for the British constitution is such a wild and tangled ancient wood of unwritten laws, conventions, great charters, together with a dense undergrowth of detailed statutory legislation.
We are rightly proud of our parliamentary system, based on representative democracy, government under law and civil liberty. It has, of course, inspired constitution-makers across the common law world. The post-war international human rights codes, including the European convention, reflect the philosophy and values of British thinkers of the past three centuries.
However, as several noble Lords have already said—and the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, most powerfully—it is as ludicrous to be complacent about the existing constitutional settlement as it is to pretend that campaigners for constitutional reform are somehow endangering national unity, or even lacking in patriotism. The existing arrangements are seriously 1482 deficient, and the constitution, if I may say so, is not the property of the Conservative Party but of the citizens of this country.
For 17 years four Conservative governments have not hesitated to make radical changes in our constitutional arrangements. The inheritance they will leave for the next government is an over-centralised but unstable political system, unpopular with many of those it is meant to serve, and disruptive of the unity of the nation. They have failed to nurture a stable British constitution which protects our national identity and diverse traditions and adequately protects basic civil rights and freedoms.
It is astonishing but true that, unlike the other member states of the European Union, we have only weak constitutional and legal protection for our sense of nationhood and our sense of citizenship. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is a frail safeguard against the incoming tide of European law. It is also a frail safeguard against the dominance of the Executive over Parliament. For most of the time the Executive of course controls Parliament: the elective dictatorship, in the celebrated phrase of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham. I find it a profound irony that a Government so vocally opposed to a European federal state should have failed to create a constitutional bulwark for this country; and that a Government rightly hostile to a centralised Europe should cling so obstinately to a centralised British state.
The idea of a good constitution, which we on these Benches cherish, is quite different. Our central aim is to renew the British constitution so that it can strengthen our democracy, our citizenship, our sense of common purpose, and the quality of government in the interests of the governed. That is why we want to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament, to the courts, and to the people, and to create a stable and enduring framework of elected government based, as the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, has said, on the principle of subsidiarity—that power is exercised at the lowest level compatible with good, efficient and accountable government. If that makes sense for the EU, it also surely makes sense for the UK.
We seek an enforceable British Bill of Rights enabling British judges to give effective British remedies for breaches of fundamental rights by the Executive and other arms of government. We do not understand why our courts are less fit than the courts of all, or almost all, the other member states to interpret and apply the European Convention in accordance with local knowledge and needs. I shall return in a few moments to the convention in the light of what has been said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, a few moments ago.
We want to set enforceable limits on the prerogative powers of the Executive; to shift substantial power from over-centralised Whitehall departments and unelected quangos to a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly, and where there is sufficient regional demand—and only then—to regional assemblies and to a renewed system of local government. We seek to make Parliament more effective in calling the Executive to account and in 1483 scrutinising legislation; and to make this House more democratic and regionally representative, with an enhanced role as a constitutional watchdog. We wish to create a voting system which better reflects the wishes of the electors; to improve access to justice; and to improve and promote greater openness and accountability in government at every level by means of a freedom of information Act.
The Government are right to fear each of these aspirations, for what we seek is both popular with the people and hostile to the privileges and immunities of an over-mighty Executive. Each of the proposals for reform is closely linked with the others, just as they are in turn influenced by the shaping of the European Union and the sharing of national sovereignty. Each of them affects the others and together they amount to a practical but ambitious agenda. I believe that to bring about coherent and enduring constitutional reforms on this scale will require great political commitment, imagination and patience. It will be necessary to move beyond the traditional parliamentary diet of piecemeal, politically partisan and indigestibly detailed legislation. We have exported many constitutions to the countries of the former British Empire, but we cannot easily do the same for ourselves. If we are to achieve a system of government in which each part relates sensibly to the system as a whole, we have to do the next best thing. We should, I believe, work for a comprehensive programme of constitutional reforms rather than yet another series of disjointed legislative Acts, not on speaking terms one with the other.
Is there, then, an efficient method of constitutional law making which respects Parliament's sovereign legislative powers and yet avoids the pitfalls of past attempts? Are there ways to ease the passage of the legislation in a manner which would make constitutional sense and be likely to survive a future change of government?
These are perplexing but crucial questions which have been explored with objectivity and realism by the constitution unit to whose advisory committee I am proud to belong, although I take no credit for its work. I believe that, given the necessary political will, ways can be found which respect both parliamentary and popular sovereignty, preventing the reform programme from foundering because of archaic parliamentary procedures, and using the referendum to validate the reforms that achieve popular consent.
To secure a lasting and sensible settlement based on constitutional principles will be a lengthy process based on building a broad consensus. There are discrete measures which can be enacted meanwhile, provided that they are elements in an overall coherent plan; for example, the incorporation of the European Convention, and, I would add, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That could be done easily as a first step towards a British Bill of Rights. But those of us who advocate constitutional reform have a duty to explain what we have in mind and how we propose to go about the process. The way in which we undertake constitutional change is, I believe, as important as the overwhelmingly strong case for the reform of our constitution.
1484 Finally, I wish to say a few words about the European Convention because I am afraid I do not agree at all with what was said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington. In the first place, the whole purpose of the European Convention was to enable individuals in states that belonged to the convention to have effective access to national, and then to European remedies. That is why the convention allowed states to accept the jurisdiction of the European Commission and Court. In the early drafting it was intended to be compulsory, but later it became optional. That is why the convention requires the states to secure rights and freedoms in their laws and to provide effective domestic remedies.
Secondly, when the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Jowitt, was contemplating signing and ratifying the convention, it is clear from the Cabinet papers that I have read that he expected there would have to be an act of incorporation of the convention into domestic law. But the Government changed. It never happened.
Thirdly—I am not sure whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, is aware of this—from his point of view the pass has been sold. Last year, I am glad to say, the United Kingdom ratified the eleventh protocol to the convention which gives a permanent right of access by everyone in this country to a permanent new European Court of Human Rights. That protocol, which has been signed by many states, is of great importance to the effectiveness of the convention.
Your Lordships may be interested to know that, finally, every state which belongs to the convention, apart from Ireland—including even the Nordic states which had a tradition similar to our own—has now incorporated the convention by one means or another into domestic law. I am, therefore, most heartened and delighted that the Labour Party is firmly in favour of incorporating the convention.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, in the past we have been indebted to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and the noble Earl, Lord Perth, for giving us the opportunity to discuss alternative forms of government in Scotland. Today we have embarked on a much wider ranging debate. Therefore, I propose to restrict my remarks purely to the controversial proposal to recreate a parliament in Scotland.
I am interested that the Leader of the Labour Party took up one of my suggestions when I spoke last year. He decided to call a referendum. Unfortunately he chose the wrong option and got himself in a fine pickle as a result. Nevertheless, by calling a referendum he conceded that he agreed with what we on this side of the House have always argued: that a general election did not give a mandate for the creation of a new Parliament anywhere in the United Kingdom. We made that claim because each party's manifesto contained a variety of promises and suggestions and, therefore, we could not expect a mandate for a parliament to be obtained on that basis.
If a referendum had been a possibility I should have preferred a multi-option referendum at the end of a full campaign in the first year of a new government during 1485 which all the minuses and pluses could have been outlined for the population so that it could make a considered judgment. It is now suggested that a referendum takes place before legislation is in place. To my mind that seems utterly pointless. By the time a Bill has been through the parliamentary system it can be totally different from the form in which it commenced life. Unfortunately that could well be the case with the proposed legislation which the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, and the convention have in mind.
As regards the Scottish Constitutional Convention, perhaps I may mention the former joint chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkwood. In his handling of the affairs of the convention he has attracted unto himself from all over Scotland the highest respect. That respect is shared not just by his own colleagues but by those who disagree vehemently, as I do, with practically everything that he sought to do. But that does not detract from the high esteem in which we all hold him.
The referendum that we shall have can have no bearing on Parliament. One cannot have a referendum which asks two questions specifically designed to achieve the answer one wishes, and then have the Bill debated and perhaps changed considerably. Who knows, my Lords? The Bill can be changed for a variety of reasons—by amendment or by the Government of the day changing their minds. It could be changed by the Leader of the Labour Party. After all, he has changed his mind on a number of issues. Noble Lords might ask the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, if they feel that that is not the case. In any event, it is not a foregone conclusion that the legislation will finish as it began.
I must also take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. It came rich from him this afternoon to talk about some of our colleagues in another place changing their minds. The noble Lord is a Front Bench spokesman of a party which has changed its mind on many issues. It has changed its election manifesto so devastatingly that anyone considering the Labour manifesto of 1970 would scarcely believe that it was written by the same party which produced the manifesto in 1987. And when it comes to the next election, we can expect even greater changes. However, I congratulate the noble Lord on a very interesting and combative speech which I appreciated very much—even if it contained a few hostages to fortune.
I am by no means the only person who suspects that reasons exist for following the referendum route other than those offered by the Leader of the Opposition. Writing in the Herald on 28th June, the well known Scottish journalist, Alf Young, himself a devolutionist, wrote:Michael Forsyth was clearly landing punches with his tartan tax offensive and the Labour leadership was feeling the pain".Later in the same article, he continued:Asking the Scottish people to endorse both Labour's home rule plans and the issue of devolved tax-varying powers before a Bill is enacted is both a way of vaulting over Scottish Labour and its jealously protected devolved powers and a means of defusing the tax issue for good".1486 Alf Young may well be correct, but I suggest that there is another reason which is doomed to failure from the outset.
There is a view that if Scotland were to vote "yes" with a substantial majority on a pre-legislative referendum, it would guarantee the legislation fast track treatment in Parliament. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, said as much: that there would be this great mandate, and the measure would go through. Nothing could be further from reality, and I shall remind the noble Lord why.
A Bill to establish a Scottish Parliament would be one of the most important in the life of a new Government. It is the duty of an Opposition to oppose that with which it does not agree and to scrutinise every clause and line of each Bill which comes before the House, in particular one with such far-reaching effects, and—being a constitutional matter—one which would have to be taken on the Floor of the House.
It is on the Floor of the House at Committee stage that such major issues as the West Lothian question will have to be considered. No solution has been found. Noble Lords on the other side of the Chamber can make excuses and give examples. But the truth of the matter is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, pointed out, so far no solution has been found to the difficulty which arises as long as 72 MPs continue to vote on all matters at Westminster, and a large part of Scottish legislation will be dealt with in Scotland on which MPs representing seats outside Scotland cannot vote.
The West Lothian question is not new, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy pointed out. The Kilbrandon Royal Commission considered the question as far back as 1973. It found that a problem would arise over the extent and level of representation of those regions in the House of Commons compared with that of regions which did not have legislative assemblies of their own. It is unthinkable that Scottish constituencies might not be represented adequately at Westminster but Scottish representation is in real danger of being reduced. The case for devolution is certainly not made. But the case for fewer Scottish MPs at Westminster, should it come about, seems very strong indeed.
I wish to raise a particular point. I am concerned about the future of the Lord Advocate's role. The Lord Advocate is currently a member of the United Kingdom Government. He is one of four Law Officers and advisers to the United Kingdom Government, two English and two Scottish. But he is also the Public Prosecutor in Scotland and is answerable to the Westminster Parliament in that capacity. If a Scottish parliament is set up, law and order would be one of the devolved powers. As a major participator in the criminal justice system in Scotland, the Lord Advocate would require to be answerable to the Scottish parliament in respect of his role as Public Prosecutor. He could not therefore remain a member of the United Kingdom Government in the United Kingdom Parliament. To do so would place him in a position giving rise to a conflict of interest.
Paragraph 134 of the constitution unit's report refers to Law Officers of both Scottish and UK Governments. They would have responsibilities to advise their 1487 respective governments. That would mean that the Lord Advocate would cease to play a role in Whitehall and Westminster, as would the Solicitor General for Scotland. That would be a great disadvantage to Scotland and would weaken Scotland's voice in Cabinet committees and other government discussions.
Then there is the question mark which must arise over the powers of the Secretary of State and his influence in Cabinet, the question of funding, the amount of the block grant and the formula by which it is decided and, above all, the danger that we could be legislating for the first step towards the break up of the United Kingdom. All in all, this legislation will be of enormous importance and cannot possibly be rushed.
In conclusion, when one looks at the effect of the proposals in the Labour and Liberal Parties and the convention, the inevitable outcome must be that the tartan tax will not satisfy for long at three pence in the pound. Every imperfection will be blamed on Westminster. A Labour Government will certainly not be forgiven because of their great numerical strength in Scotland. When things go wrong in a Scottish assembly or Scottish parliament, if one is set up, the Labour Party will be blamed. What will that do? It will divert attention to the Scottish National Party and there will be an exodus from Labour to the Scottish National Party in a demand for independence. People will say, "Your government, the Labour Government, have taken us down this route and now we will go the whole way because you can't deliver what you said you would". There is no halfway house; union or separation are the only choices available. I hope with all my heart that the Scottish people will not be tempted down the treacherous path of devolution.
§ Lord Irvine of Lairg
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he tell us from all his experience of Scotland, whether it is his judgment that the Scots would oppose devolution on a referendum after legislation? If that is his judgment, does he agree that a vast amount of prime parliamentary time would have been wasted? Does he therefore agree that the path of prudence is to have a referendum, after a detailed White Paper, on the principle of devolution before legislation is embarked on?
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, I am flattered that the noble Lord should consider that I am able to give an answer. My personal opinion is that the people of Scotland would, first, be insulted by a referendum before legislation took place. Secondly, if they waited until the legislation took place and were then asked to vote on it, the first question should be: do you approve of the Act passed by Parliament?
§ 5.55 p.m.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Gray, who was my colleague in another place. Like so many who have spoken, I wish to congratulate the Lord Chief Justice, who on the day of his introduction was linked with the county of Powys in Wales. It appears that his judgment 1488 is very good. I am a non-lawyer congratulating the Lord Chief Justice, and I hope that the only place where I shall appear before him is here.
Constitutional issues unfailingly arouse strong passions, not only here in the high court of Parliament, but outside, among our people. The British people have a highly sensitive nerve when constitutional change is proposed. The constitution they know is a guardian and helps to be the provider of their quality of life. The opinions which I shall express in this debate are not those of a sudden convert, like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. The convictions which I shall express are after a long career in the public life of Wales. Like the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gwydir, I once had the great privilege of being Secretary of State for Wales.
I wish to confine my remarks to two issues: the referendum and the assembly. After I had listened with deep interest to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor introducing his speech, I thought it was a bit thick for him to be accused of being political when the speech that followed was not exactly a Sunday school lecture. But neither the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor nor the noble Lord who spoke for the Opposition seemed to know much about Wales. The information they gave us about the proposed assembly was anaemic and pitiful. It was a shot in the dark for the Welsh people. I do not wish to tread on any Scottish corns. I know that there is an immediate reaction.
However, like so many who have already spoken, I am a great believer in the unity of the United Kingdom. I have taken great pride in the fact that we have risen above racial discrimination and having one form of government for Scotland, another for Wales and another for England. Our glory and our strength have been that we are a united Parliament, a united country. When there is talk so glibly of decentralisation, I would point out that we are a major country in the world, but it is a small country. People talk as though London were Tokyo. I do not believe that there is a clamour from people at the present time for the sort of assembly at which I am guessing. I shall come to it in greater detail.
A referendum on an assembly for Wales is not new to us. Indeed, the matter arose under the administration of my noble friend—if the House will permit me to call him that—Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, who by tradition sits on that side while I sit here. My noble friend was obliged by certain pressures to consider introducing an assembly for Wales. His instinct told him that he had better find out whether the people wanted it. It was a very good instinct; and in his wisdom he followed it. We had our referendum. People like the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, who tonight said that we want change, told us the same thing then. The same people pretended that they understood the innermost depths of feeling of the Welsh people in relation to wanting a break. I shall come to that in a moment.
A general election is a form of referendum. However, at a general election people are rarely chosen on one issue. They are usually chosen on broad issues. The one issue is pushed in between others in the manifesto, and 1489 they say, "We have a right". It could be that there are people who say it is time for a change, and do not read the manifesto. Indeed, in the 11 elections that I fought I do not believe I read the manifesto! It is usually a long, boring document. But I know that it would be very unfair to say that, if people vote at a general election for one party on broad issues, they therefore lose the right to decide their own destiny when major constitutional changes are proposed.
I turn to the assembly itself. What form is it to take in Wales? From whence will come its powers? Powers are not in the air. They are with local government or national government. I am told that they can look after the quangos. Incidentally, I sat in the Chair in the other place listening to Mr. Philip Holland on the Conservative Benches complaining bitterly about all the quangos that the government of the day had created. That is a complaint that belongs to both sides of the House. Some have been there longer. That is why they have created more quangos.
If an assembly were to take powers from the Secretary of State, it would mean disaster for Wales. The Welsh Office, set up 32 years ago by the late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, has grown significantly in the life of the Principality. It has enormous influence on our everyday life. There have been 10 Secretaries of State in the 32 years. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Mr Hague. He has a good reputation. And he is learning the Welsh language, with which my noble friend sitting here is responsible for helping in Wales.
The strengths of the Secretary of State for Wales in the Cabinet depend upon his being able to say, "I am speaking for Wales". How can people gain access to an assembly, or to quangos? How can they challenge those, as we can challenge Ministers in the Welsh Office and bring them to account? To weaken the Welsh Office would be a disastrous loss for the people of Wales. I hope they hear my voice as I say it. They know that the Welsh Office has made an enormous difference to the quality of our life.
The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, who will speak later, knows, as does the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that the Welsh Office, with English subsidies, has done more for the Welsh language than has any other body. It has encouraged it. It set up a language bureau. If we remove powers from the Welsh Office and leave it anaemic, the Secretary of State's voice in the Cabinet will be a whisper, and all who serve in the Cabinet will know that that is the case.
What if the powers are to be taken? They must come from somewhere. To take them from the recently elected new statutory local authorities in Wales would be a fiendishly cruel, stupid thing to do. Parliament has already played havoc with the life and careers of those who serve in local government, given all the changes that have been inflicted. If the new single-tier authorities in Wales are now to be undermined by a loss of power, it will be difficult to say that we are helping the Welsh people. Mark well my words: there will be a storm of protest from the newly elected authorities in Wales if an assembly is to take their powers and reduce their influence within the Principality.
1490 If the assembly is as anaemic as it appears it will be, this House may be assured that it will have a voracious appetite. It will want more power and more influence—of course it will. The agitation will begin. First, people will say, "What has happened in Scotland? Are we second-rate? We must have the same: a Parliament with tax-raising powers". It is idle to say that there is not a danger to the Union, because every political assembly by its nature always seeks more power for itself. That is the history of another place. It began in a small way. Within four years it was claiming the right to control expenditure in the United Kingdom, and that is a quality of local government that has not changed.
Naturally, the assembly in Wales will want more power. Of course it will strengthen the nationalists. I am not here to argue about Labour, Liberal or Welsh Nationalists, but it would not be difficult for noble Lords to guess my feelings and opinions. I say this: rather than take the risk of a process that would lead to us having racial parliaments in Scotland, Wales and England, we should say "No" now, and that will be my advice to the people of Wales.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Lord Kingsland
My Lords, it has always been my nightmare that one day I would have to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy. Today, even by his own high standards, he has exceeded his usual lofty cruising altitude.
We are today debating the constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom. In thinking about it, I have been very struck by the extent to which it still depends upon the common law, interpreted by the judges. Let us reflect on that for a moment. A statute is a creature of common law. It is defined by common law. The doctrine that no parliament can bind its successor is a doctrine of common law. Indeed, the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament itself is a doctrine not of Parliament but of the courts. Above all, those great principles upon which this nation's freedom has depended throughout the centuries—the principles of liberty and of equality and of fairness and reasonableness—are not principles created by statute; these are principles established by the common law through the courts of this country.
Underlying all this is the great doctrine of the separation of powers. The courts do not interfere in the proceedings of Parliament and Parliament does not interfere in the proceedings of the courts. Parliament passes law and the courts interpret it, and so each one is king in his own country.
The extraordinary thing is that these principles, which derive from medieval times, have withstood the enormous changes that have taken place in our political society in this century. In Parliament, for example, there has been the most dramatic change in the balance of power between the legislature and the executive. It is now true to say, I am afraid, that in another place it is not the legislature which controls the executive, but the executive which controls the legislature. It has been this fact, accompanied by the huge volume of legislation, much of which is extremely discretionary, which has 1491 confronted the common law and the courts with the biggest challenge that they have ever faced in their history.
The reassuring thing is that they have met that challenge. They have met the expansion of governmental power generated by modern-day legislation with their own techniques of discretionary control. I believe it is fair to say that without the existence of any written constitution or any entrenched powers, if one compares the liberties in this country today with those of other great democracies such as the United States and many of the western European democracies, we compare pretty well with them. There may be some areas in which we are slightly weaker but there are others in which we prove a great deal stronger.
I believe it would be a very ill-considered move to try to disturb this system. Any attempt to seek to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into our constitution should be looked at with deep suspicion. First, I do not believe that it is necessary because our guarantees are already underlined by the common law as interpreted by the courts. Moreover, I am not sure that it would work. For example, suppose that the convention were introduced by an Act of Parliament. What would happen when a subsequent law was passed? We have already heard from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice that, if there is some ambiguity about the relationship of an English statute to the convention, the courts would interpret that law in sympathy with the convention. In that case, what is the point of incorporating the convention into our law in the first place?
On the other hand, if a law breaching the convention is passed after the convention is entrenched, which contradicts that law then the convention would be of no help because of the doctrine that no parliament can bind its successor. The subsequent law would overturn the previous convention. Therefore, the introduction of the convention is either unnecessary or futile.
The real problem we face with discriminatory legislation is one that need not be confronted by introducing some new judicial dimension to our constitution. It ought to be confronted at its source—which is in another place. It is not the custom in normal debate in your Lordships' House to look at the operations of another place; but I understand that for the purposes of the debate during the next two days—our overview of the British constitution—it is permissible to talk about what happens in another place. The problem is fundamentally this: if one enters another place as a new Member of Parliament, one can no longer look forward to a career as a parliamentarian. The only really desirable course open to one is to seek to become a member of the executive—just as nowadays I am afraid that people no longer go into the Army to become regimental officers; they all go in to become generals. These are unhappy developments in both places.
The way ahead is to make a career in another place in controlling the executive just as attractive as being a member of the executive. My noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley introduced in another place what is probably the most dramatic constitutional innovation in 1492 the 20th century—the development of the Select Committee. I believe that this is the route ahead. We should make the job of chairman of a Select Committee as attractive as the job of being a Cabinet Minister, not only in terms of pay but in terms of status. The more senior ones should hope one day to become members of Her Majesty's most honourable Privy Council and they should have a staff, too. We should reach the stage that when a new Member enters another place there is a genuine dilemma as to whether his career path should be through a Select Committee to control the executive or to become a member of the executive. If we achieve this, we will be dealing with most of the constitutional problems we face at source in relation to the quality of legislation produced by our Parliament. If we satisfactorily deal with it in another place, I might suggest that political affairs in your Lordships' House would be a great deal more agreeable.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lord Plant of Highfield
My Lords, I want to focus my contribution on issues of decentralisation and devolution. I shall also speak in passing about the electoral system for the proposed Welsh and Scottish assemblies and about the referendums in Scotland and Wales. Most of the points have already been made by my noble friend on the Front Bench and my noble friend Lord Sewel in their contributions. However, there are still one or two other issues to which I should like to point in favour of the case for devolution and greater decentralisation.
It has always struck me that the strongest case for devolution derives from the critique of the role and competence of government, which has been the main theme of the party opposite since the 1970s. It has been argued in relation to the economy that government cannot plan, regulate or intervene because of their limited competence, limited knowledge and limited capacity. That has led to a diminution in the role of government and the decentralisation of economic decision-making from collective bodies more and more toward the market. Yet at the same time, there has been tremendous growth in centralisation of government in other areas, as the Prime Minister acknowledged in his speech at the Centre for Policy Studies the other evening.
The critique of the competence of government, which has been relied upon to justify removing government from the market, applies equally well to other aspects of government. Human knowledge, as Hayek—a great mentor of many Conservatives for the past 20 years—argued, is fragmented, dispersed, limited and, above all, localised. If government are to act competently, they need to decentralise to a greater degree the power that they hold centrally. Decentralised institutions, whether local government or assemblies in Scotland and Wales, would allow such local knowledge to be better utilised for the public good. I am rather sorry that the debate about devolution and decentralisation has yet to mention the role of local government.
Against that decentralised view, it can be argued, as Mr. Willetts, the Minister for Public Service, argued on television last night, that we can only have a dynamic 1493 and decentralised economy set in a unified and centralised state. It is entirely unclear to me why that should be so. I should like to hear some argument for that rather than just the assertion that it is true. It seems to me that the arguments which lead to economic decentralisation apply equally well to political decentralisation because they are essentially arguments about the competence of government and they mirror one another in each case.
It can also be argued that the state and its associated constitutional arrangements embody something about the ethos of what it is to be British and that is why we need the centralised and unitary state. It is a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, a few minutes ago. We need a centralised and unitary state to embody that kind of British ethos. However, I argue that in a way that British ethos itself is now somewhat differentiated. We are, of course, in many important ways a unified nation. I am sure that we all want to preserve that. But I believe very strongly that the sense of unity needs to respect difference and give a political place and political recognition to difference in a pluralistic society.
I also believe that the sense of difference, whether it is attachment to locality, community or region, as in Wales or Scotland, is likely to grow in salience largely as a result of economic changes. The globalisation of the economy and the homogenisation of life to which it leads, as well as the insecurity which a global market generates, will lead people to value more and more the familiar, the local and what is distinctive to them and supports their sense of identity and work. If that intuition is correct, it seems to me that the attachment to locality and region will grow in importance and demand political expression. We may not like pluralism and we may not like the more differentiated nature of the country which it produces, but we ignore it at our peril. Not all the growing attachments will be political but, as they grow in importance, they will, I believe, lead to the demand for political expression, whether through an enhanced role for local government or regional government or assemblies in the nations of Scotland and Wales.
Those concerns about the growing pluralism in society are reflected in the proposals for the electoral system for both the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. It would be quite wrong to have a first-past-the-post electoral system for such bodies, since those bodies are being set up in part, as I suggested, as a response to diversity and difference. That would have been inconsistent with a first-past-the-post electoral system, which would have led to the risk, given the Labour Party's position in those two nations, of setting up one-party states. I am very pleased that the Labour Party has been able to see beyond narrow party interests and has recognised that the Scottish parliament and the process that has led to it—namely, the Constitutional Convention—should presage a new, more open, more consensus-seeking and consent-building kind of politics. I believe that the change in the electoral system will carry that process forward.
1494 I want now to turn to the referendum. I preface my remarks by saying something about the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The convention has been a remarkable process which has shown that new approaches to politics are possible and that with patience it is possible to achieve unanimity over proposals which are radical. I pay tribute to Canon Kenyon Wright, Sir David Steel and my noble friend Lord Ewing of Kirkford for all that they have done to achieve that quite remarkable result. In my view it is a pity that the issue of the referendum announced last week was not discussed with the convention. I can fully understand how my noble friend Lord Ewing felt about that. At the same time, however, although I was surprised about the announcement and indeed initially shocked by it, on reflection I believe that it has considerable advantages both of principle and politics.
A referendum will make the issue of devolution come alive for the people of Wales and Scotland. If approved, it will be a devolution of power produced with the full-hearted consent of the people, and that surely is good to underpin constitutional change. If the proposals are approved, those devolved bodies would, it seems to me, be a long way towards entrenchment.
Tactically, too, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, said, I still think that there is a major gain. I doubt whether the party opposite, as he said, would have accepted that a manifesto commitment to a parliament and an assembly would have been enough on the not unreasonable grounds that people vote for a range of things in a manifesto. Hence, a positive result in a referendum will help to process these historic changes through Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, in an intervention in the speech of my noble friend on the Front Bench at the beginning of the debate, asked why we were not proposing a referendum in England. Indeed, the Prime Minister made that point last week in his speech, at which I was pleased to be able to be present. I believe that it is a rather opportunistic argument since, as I understand it, we are quite likely as a result of the peace process in Northern Ireland, to which everyone naturally wishes the greatest success, to have a set of constitutional proposals emerging for Northern Ireland. I do not imagine that the Prime Minister will propose to hold a referendum in England on changes to the Constitution of Northern Ireland. So I cannot see that there is a case for having a referendum in England on proposals for decentralised power in Scotland.
As someone who wants to try to preserve the union of the Kingdom, it seems to me that the greatest threat to the Union is Scottish nationalism and the bid for Scottish independence. Those flames will be fanned by doing nothing. In the hope that Edmund Burke is still regarded as a kind of guru for the Conservative Party, along with Hayek, I quote two lines from his Reflections on the Revolution in France:A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation … Without such means, it might even risk the loss of that part of the Constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve".I think that that is true of the Conservative attitude to Scotland at the moment.
§ 6.29 p.m.
§ The Earl of Perth
My Lords, all in the House will welcome the news regarding the Stone of Destiny. I want to touch briefly on two issues: first, the composition of a new House of Lords—we have all heard the threat to the House of Lords in its present form; and, secondly, devolution. I hope to show that there is a link between the two.
Under the Act of Union, Scottish Peers elect 16 of their number, which is well over 100. I hope that in a new House of Lords that which is enshrined in the Act of Union will remain for Scottish Peers. Many noble Lords will remember that a little while ago the system for appointing Scottish Peers was changed and we all became UK Peers, whether or not we wanted that. I assume that that did not mean the abolition of Scottish Peers, but rather that they were subsumed in the greater UK peerage. I hope that I am right in that and, when it comes to any change in the composition of the House of Lords, the Act of Union will prevail in relation to Scotland.
I said that there was a link between that and other reforms in the House of Lords, and the link is this. I believe that the same sort of system should apply to the other UK Peers, the hereditary Peers who are so often attacked; that is to say, a number of UK Peers other than the Scots should be allowed to come into the House of Lords through election. One of the great advantages of such a system is that we would have the benefit of hearing the experiences and thinking of younger people in the Chamber and that is very good for us "oldies".
I touched briefly on the composition of the House of Lords, particularly in relation to the Scottish Peers. I want now to come to devolution, which has been the subject of much discussion today. I have always been in favour of a Scottish assembly—I stress the word "assembly"; I do not favour a Scottish parliament—I shall elaborate on the difference shortly. We in Scotland must have more say in what happens at Whitehall and run our own affairs to a considerable degree; that would be right and proper. However, I advocate taking one step at a time. If the assembly does not satisfy the Scottish people, we can try a parliament. But if we start with a parliament and it does not work, we cannot go backwards.
What powers do I visualise for the assembly? Above all, it should consider the cutting of the cake; that is, the apportionment of the block grant which is given to us by Parliament every year. That is by far the most important work of the Scottish Office. It says that it tries to consult on how the cake should be cut up and tries even harder when it has to take account of the Scottish Grant Committee sitting in different parts of the country. That does not bring home to the Scottish people what they want. For example, they want to be able to decide whether they would rather spend more money on health and less on education or vice versa. If they had the right to criticise or advise on—or, more than that, to dictate the form of—the cutting of the cake, that would go a long way to avoiding the worries and objections that they have at the present time in relation to the powers of Whitehall.
1496 By forming an assembly we would avoid many of the pitfalls about which we have heard this afternoon. I have in mind such matters as the West Lothian question, the number of Scottish MPs there should be in Parliament, the size of the block grant (which will shortly be challenged), the question of the North Sea oil revenues and so forth. Those questions put our very Union at stake. Let us start by forming an assembly. Many noble Lords and Scottish people will say that it is just a talking shop, particularly if it is to have no taxing powers. But taxing powers are dangerous. If we lowered our taxes in Scotland we would see immediately a reduction in the block grant; if we increased our taxes, slowly but inevitably industry and financial activities would move south. We should not consider at this stage a tartan tax.
The question of the composition of an assembly is of prime importance. I advocate indirect rather than direct representation or election. Leading bodies, such as the Church of Scotland, the unions and industry, should each elect a certain number of their members to sit in the assembly. It is a choice which avoids appointing a quango and avoids any challenge to Whitehall in that they are elected by the people.
I conclude by saying that to start as proposed, with a quickly set up new Scottish parliament and to have a referendum in that regard is full of danger. Let us try forming an assembly first. Together, over 300 years, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have done great things for the world. There is still much work for us ahead.
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, quoted Burke. I should like to quote from a speech made by Disraeli in Edinburgh in 1867, when he said:In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines".I suggest to your Lordships that that is as up-to-date today, as we approach constitutional reform, as it was when it was uttered over 100 years ago.
As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor reminded us in introducing this debate, our constitution is largely unwritten. We rely greatly on convention, precedent, custom and on the common law. This suits our national character, but it means that, because of the nature of our constitution, wherever possible change should proceed by agreement. It should be evolutionary and it should build on the past and not break with the past.
This seems to me to be the approach that Her Majesty's Government are adopting towards devolution. There have been many examples of domestic decisions made about Scotland and Wales which are now made in Scotland and Wales rather than in Whitehall and Westminster. We have had recent examples of the strengthening of the powers and the authority of the Scottish Grand Committee and the Welsh Grand Committee which have given them greater ability to question Ministers and officials than hitherto.
1497 I believe that this evolutionary step-by-step approach is the right one. I have no doubt that Her Majesty's Government will continue to respond to the natural desires of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have a growing say in their domestic affairs within the framework of the United Kingdom.
From the speeches that we have heard today and previously, it seems to me that the approach of Her Majesty's Opposition is very different. It appears to believe in upheaval rather than evolution. As we have heard again today, it is suggesting that there should be a Scottish parliament with tax-raising powers, the so-called tartan tax. What effect would that have on inward investment into the United Kingdom? I suggest that, with the possibility of the tartan tax hanging over them, it would be a natural deterrent to firms to go to Scotland. It raises, too, the whole question of the financial relationship between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is the case that Scotland receives more per head in grants and subsidies than the people of England. As an Englishman I do not particularly relish that, but I believe that it can be justified in present economic circumstances. But a very different question would arise if a Scottish parliament had the power to raise a tartan tax.
There is also the West Lothian question, which has been referred to on a number of occasions. I shall not repeat the argument except to remind your Lordships that there are three aspects to it. The first is what powers Scottish MPs should have in Westminster on English domestic affairs; secondly, how many Scottish MPs should sit in Westminster and, thirdly, how many Scottish Ministers should sit in Cabinet and in government.
This matter also affects your Lordships' House. If there were to be devolution the question may well be asked: should that have some effect on the number of Scottish and Welsh Peers who sit in your Lordships' House? I believe that all these questions would be open to discussion and argument. Indeed, the whole of our constitution would be in the melting pot, including the composition of both Houses of Parliament. The noble Earl, Lord Perth, has just referred to the possible changes in the composition of your Lordships' House. I do not believe that one can isolate that from the question of devolution.
It seems to me that the proposals of the Labour Party represent the worst of all worlds; namely, a two-stage reform. It sounds to me like 1911 all over again. The preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 suggested that there should be a reform of the composition of your Lordships' House. There were a series of negotiations, but no agreement was reached. That preamble remains a dead letter. It was many years before a reform was eventually introduced; namely, the Life Peerages Act 1958. I believe that in the first stage of this proposed reform your Lordships' House would be greatly weakened by the entire loss of its hereditary element, which broadens our representation and which brings a wide range of experience, independence and youth. I believe that your Lordships' House would then become a glorified and aged quango, dependent for any 1498 reinforcements on the wishes or whims of the Prime Minister of the day. There would be no guarantee that the second stage of the reform would be introduced any more than it was after the 1911 Act. I suggest to your Lordships that this is no way to treat a key element in our parliamentary institution.
I am not against reform of your Lordships' House. I can think of many reforms which would strengthen it and make it easier for your Lordships to have an effective brake on the government of the day and to ask another place to think again. Whether another place would find these reforms acceptable is a different matter.
There is the proposal for regional assemblies in England. Who wants them? If you ask anyone in the West Country whether they prefer to be governed from London or Bristol they would say, to a man and a woman, London. It would mean another enormous upheaval in local government. I believe that that proposal would be very much the fifth wheel of the coach.
In conclusion, I believe we all recognise that the British constitution is a living but tender plant. It has developed over the centuries with few upheavals. It seems to me that the proposals of Her Majesty's Opposition would threaten the unity, integrity and stability of the United Kingdom and the checks and balances which exist within our parliamentary system. I much prefer the approach of Her Majesty's Government that change should be evolutionary and in accordance with the manners, customs, laws and traditions of the British people.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
My Lords, for obvious reasons the debate has tended to focus on devolution. I am well aware of the head of steam behind that. In fact, I probably know as much about it as many noble Lords here because I was the Government Chief Whip who lost the guillotine Motion on the first Scotland and Wales Bill. I did eventually drive through, although not entirely with wholehearted consent, the Scotland Bill and Wales Bill. I do not wish to dwell on that, but to pursue other issues which have been touched on because this is supposed to be a wide-ranging constitutional debate. We are told there is a head of steam about other issues which I do not believe.
I should first declare an interest as both the vice-chairman of the BBC and deputy chairman of the LDDC, both of which are quangos, as your Lordships will know. We have had previous debates where a number of speakers have criticised this country when advocating constitutional change, pointing out all sorts of defects and claiming popular support for these constitutional reforms. I have said in the past and I say it again, that I am fed up with all this knocking of our country which goes on. This orgy of self-denigration by a small, but gifted group in our society has become totally obsessive.
It is fashionable to decry famous individuals. When I was younger for some time Albert Schweitzer was a common target for his missionary work in Lambaréné.
1499 More recently, Mother Teresa has come in for criticism. I believe that a lot of this "knocking" is designed to enhance the careers, prospects and reputations of those critics. If a miscarriage of justice is announced, often on some technicality, those who pour out condemnation do not stop to think in how many countries a miscarriage of justice would ever be announced, let alone recognised. Isolated and individual cases of corruption bring forth demands for inquiries, wholesale reform and change.
In the past few months I have been buying the weekly newspaper the European. Hardly a week passes without a report of a scandal abroad in mainland Europe involving a prominent person and large sums of public money.
Why is it that we are so obsessed with the motes in our own eyes, yet we ignore the beams in the eyes of others? Why does there appear to be a constant bubbling of unrest on constitutional issues in this country? A number of noble Lords have referred to what has been called a groundswell of change or desire for change. I do not believe that it exists. There has been a sustained campaign of articles and letters in newspapers, often written by lecturers in law and/or politics. These pedagogues appear so frequently that one wonders whether they are hoping to use the material for the next series of lectures or courses. I am tired of the sycophantic way in which they pick up each other's points and congratulate one another on their enormous insight into the problems of this country.
But there is a common thread which runs through all of this—to which I have referred in this House in the past—namely, Charter 88. When one looks at Charter 88 one has to consider several organisations. The Charter 88 Trust was registered as a charity on 8th August 1991. Its address is Exmouth House, Pine Street. The description of its objects, taken from its charity submission is:Firstly for the non-partisan advancement of constitutional and political education generally and in relation to the rights liberties and duties of all citizens and in particular (without affecting that generality) for research into comparative constitutional structures and mechanisms in and for democratically governed states".They are perfectly laudable aims. There is nothing there to which one could take exception. However, in the same building sharing the same premises, even the same telephone number, are other organisations which are highly political. The Charity Commissioners have a great deal on their plate with approximately 180,000 registered charities to look after and keep an eye on. It is not possible to monitor every one. Usually, action is initiated following enquiries. I understand that at the moment there is some concern among animal welfare organisations—the RSPCA and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which I am a member—that their constant contact with the Charity Commission is worrying them, to the extent that one or two are thinking of giving up their charitable status and losing the financial benefits that go with it. I suggest that there is a better source of inquiry for the commissioners, and a far more interesting one.
I identify Charter 88 with the chattering classes. The intellectuals involved are far too clever to breach the charity rules blatantly, but I believe that the other groups 1500 associated with Charter 88 use the charitable trust as a respectable cover for a highly political structure. The accounts of the Charter 88 Trust include a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and one of its directors is a member of that trust. A grant is given to the Charter 88 Group which is described in the financial statement of March 1995.
The Charter 88 Trust also works with Charter 88, a company which shares its premises and carries out educational and research work in accordance with the trust's own objects and also campaigns for constitutional change. I believe that the distinction between the educational and research work and the campaigning for constitutional change is very blurred, and there could well be some infringement here. Charter 88 is a private company limited by guarantee. It has the same address and telephone number as the trust. Several trustees of Charter 88 Trust are also directors of Charter 88 private company limited. There is also Charter 88 Trust Publications Limited, a private limited company, and Charter 88 Enterprises Limited. There is some sharing of names between these different bodies in the control.
How has this veneer of desire for change been created? Charter 88 has a very large budget. Indeed, it is difficult to make sense of the profit and loss account to 31st March 1995 in which we are told that net sales amount to £803,953 and gross profit amounts to £803,953. I believe that the auditors have some explaining to do. General expenses amount to £792,495. Elsewhere, we are told that grants and donations in general amount to over half a million pounds and that the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has coughed up £100,000.
The spending of money alone cannot generate the appearance of support, so where has this money gone? The money has gone on advertisements, mainly in the newspapers, for signatures for Charter 88. I will not weary the House by describing the terms in which the advertisements refer to this dear country of ours, although the general impression given is that we are living in a police state. Although we are told that ours is the only democracy without a written constitution, we are not reminded that the Weimar Republic in Germany before the War had a written constitution, Article 136 of which guaranteed religious freedom. That did very little to protect the six million Jews who died in the holocaust or the mentally handicapped, mentally ill and gypsies who were similarly eliminated.
In the past I have drawn the attention of the House to the Charter 88 commentary on the third periodic report on the United Kingdom, which is to go to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. At the end of that report, referring to devolution, one sees:A Scottish Assembly was not, however, created because the British Government had attached a proviso to the referendum that devolution would only occur if 40 per cent. of the total electorate voted in favour".A more grotesque travesty of what actually happened and the beating that we took I cannot imagine. I pointed out that fact in the House and it became a matter of public record. Whether or not Charter 88 chose to 1501 inform the committee of the mistake that it had made I very much doubt, although I would have thought that out of common decency it should have done so.
Where has the money gone to create the alleged climate to which I have referred? I have obtained the figures for newspaper advertisements. These advertisements were designed basically to invite people to sign various demands, such as freedom of information, a bill of rights and the rest of it, which was more or less read out as an agenda by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The advertisements appeared during the period 1989 to 1994. I inform your Lordships of the number of advertisements which appeared in various periodicals and newspapers: New Statesman and Society, 33; Guardian, 49; Observer, 13; Herald, 1; Scotsman, 1; Independent, 13; Independent on Sunday, 7; Sunday Times, 4; Sunday Correspondent, 1; The Times, 1; Daily Telegraph, 1; and Today, 1. The corresponding spending is about £600,000, of which over half went to the Guardian. By the way, the offices of the Guardian are 50 yards down the road from the headquarters of Charter 88. I am sure noble Lords will agree that that is entirely coincidental. The total absence of advertisement in the Sun, Mirror, Daily Mail and Daily Express shows the contempt which the chattering classes have for the tabloid press and, by implication, for those who read the tabloids. This is a form of intellectual arrogance which is disgraceful. I suggest that the Charity Commissioners should look into these inter-connected organisations because, even if there is nothing technically wrong, the use of this charitable cloak is morally wrong. The Minister may wish to consider giving the Charity Commissioners more powers to investigate and deal with this kind of situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, said that he was involved with the Constitution Unit. In my researches I have come across a number of names in Charter 88. Quite by chance, on going into the Labour Whips Office today—I always report to get my instructions—I found a briefing from the Constitution Unit. The particular topic was reform of the House of Lords. When I look at the advisory committee what do I see? I see the names of the noble Lord, Lord Lester QC, Robert Maclennan MP, Professor David Marquand—the archetypal fount of all knowledge and wisdom—and Andrew Marr. I am reminded of the old song during the War "The Gang's all Here". It is the stage army again. I am afraid that if you look at other organisations you find that similar coincidence of names.
Apart from considering whether the Charity Commissioners should have a bit more power to look into this sort of thing, the country does not deserve to be bounced in that way. It would be much better if those intellectually gifted people, many of whom are lawyers, would concentrate their energies on pressing world problems, and, nearer home, on the great threat to society posed by the growing tide of litigation which, unless stemmed, will lead eventually to nobody going into the caring professions. When that happens, and 1502 there are no more doctors, nurses, social workers and the likes, the chattering classes will really have something to complain about, but it will be too late.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Goold
My Lords, I am Scottish and proud of it, but I am also British and proud of it, and after Scotland was knocked out of the European Cup I supported England. The very last thing that I want to see is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland threatened. And that is precisely what I believe would happen if we go down the road to an assembly or parliament in Edinburgh. Let me say why.
The proposals of the Opposition are, to put it mildly, seriously flawed. With the U-turns and histrionics of the past week, I believe that they are dangerous, unworkable, and will exacerbate divisions. We are told now that were the next government to be Labour, there would be a referendum to ask the people of Scotland whether they want a separate assembly in Edinburgh; and, secondly, whether they want it to have tax-raising powers. I do not know what the answer to the first question might be; less than one third of the electorate voted in favour at the last referendum in 1979. I am sure this time that there would not be a significant majority either way, and therefore it will be divisive. If though, as a result, an assembly were to be introduced and failed to live up to expectations, as I believe it would, there will be no going back; it cannot be experimental, and Scotland will suffer and the Union will be at great risk.
On the tax issue, can we really see the Scots voting to pay 3p in the pound more on their income tax than the English? We should realise that 3p, which perhaps does not sound too much, is 12.5 per cent. —if my arithmetic is correct—more than the present standard rate of 24p in the pound. Let us be clear what that means: a person working in Dumfries would be forced to pay 12.5 per cent. more income tax than someone doing the same job a few miles away in Carlisle. I do not believe that the Prime Minister would relish defending that when he attends the Scottish Grand Committee in Dumfries. That difference in tax would be an affront to justice and common sense. It is a recipe for conflict, yet that is what Labour says it will campaign for in a referendum.
I believe that the Scots will not vote for higher taxes. The consequence would be an assembly without tax-raising powers; that is, a talking shop which would forever be at loggerheads with Westminster. The last thing we need in Scotland is another talking shop.
Labour has spent over six years stating that a parliament without tax-raising powers would be unworkable and irrelevant. Is it prepared to implement a policy it does not believe will work and will be irrelevant? Perhaps it should be pointed out again to Labour that there is already a forum for scrutiny of Scottish issues, which does not have tax-raising powers—the Scottish Grand Committee, which is evolving at this very time. It can do everything that Labour's assembly could do, and more. And, perhaps most important of all, it is within the British parliamentary system where all legislation is 1503 considered by this second Chamber. To dictate that Scottish legislation will not qualify or be eligible for consideration by such a second Chamber is a blatant disregard of our British parliamentary democracy.
The proposal for a single chamber in Scotland is all the worse given the intention that nearly half of its members would be appointed by party leaders from party lists, rather than being elected directly by the people of Scotland. That is not the way the British parliamentary system has been for centuries, and it should not be changed in that direction now.
I also believe that an assembly would be disastrous for Scotland in that it would deter investment, particularly inward investment. Indeed, we are now beginning to see the result of all the publicity and talk of an assembly. It was reported last weekend that a big North of England pension fund had decided not to invest in the Edinburgh financial sector because of the uncertainty over the constitutional future of Scotland. That is just the tip of the iceberg. The thing that industrialists hate most of all in their plans for the future is uncertainty. The future prosperity of Scotland is at best uncertain if we go down the devolution route proposed by the Scottish convention and the Opposition. Scotland is doing exceedingly well as part of the UK; indeed, better than most other parts. To put all that at risk would be wrong.
I hesitate to draw the attention of the House to the fact that under the Barnett Goschen formula, Scots, through the block grant, receive more—significantly more—from the national Exchequer per head of population than do the English. That is one of the reasons why we have better health care, better education, better communications, lower unemployment, and altogether a better standard of living. However, let me hasten to say that I believe that the rest of the UK gets a good return from Scottish exports to England, be they liquid or people.
If Scotland were to have its own assembly or parliament—call it what you will—could we seriously expect to continue to receive a higher percentage of revenue from the national Exchequer than England? If we legislate for almost everything in Scotland, why should we continue to have more Westminster Members of Parliament than our population merits compared with England? —23 more to be exact. Would we still have the power to vote on English legislation while English MPs would not have the power to vote on Scottish? Would we still have a Secretary of State with a seat in the Cabinet? These questions cannot just be dismissed, as they were by some noble Lords opposite today, as being of no importance. The answer to all of those questions is probably no, at best doubtful, and it does not take much imagination to see the disruption and dissatisfaction which would occur between Westminster and Edinburgh.
There is another interesting point. If one party has a majority in Scotland and another in Westminster, who would be responsible for the legislative programme and from which party would the Secretary of State, if there is one, come?
The Opposition do not appear to have faced up to the issue that, if Labour loses its referendum on a tax-raising power for a parliament, that will mean 100 per cent.
1504 funding from Westminster. Will it be on the Barnett formula? How will Labour then fund that extra tier of bureaucracy and politicians? Which part of the Scottish block grant will suffer?
Devolution, in the form proposed at present, is an ill-thought out disaster waiting to happen, forged by opposition parties for short-term political gain. Now even the leaders of the Labour Party are beginning to see the folly of their proposals, hence the fudge over a referendum that we have seen in the past few days.
The United Kingdom, with Scotland as an important part of it, is best for everyone within these British Isles. The Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of the most successful and enduring partnerships in history. Change should come, as it has in the past, and very recently, through evolution. I urge noble Lords to do everything in their power to stop party meddling in this vital constitutional issue. There is a saying:If it ain't broke, don't mend it".This United Kingdom is not broke, but tinkering with it in the way Labour proposes would, I believe, lead to a break that could well prove impossible to mend.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lord Elis-Thomas
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in the debate. It is also a pleasure to listen to the contributions of colleagues from Wales and Scotland and to have a noble friend from Wales, Lord Merlyn-Rees, speaking for English regionalism. That is a voice which needs to be heard far more in these debates. Unless England is allowed to speak for itself, the debate will concentrate on forms of Scottish and Welsh apparent demands and the demands, of England for its identity and political expression may be neglected. We must look at the whole issue of the devolution of powers within the Union in a way which reflects the actual diversity of the Union today.
The reality of the diversity of the Union is that the cultural, economic and social structures of the lives of the people in the communities which make up the Union are miles away from the unreality of the so-called "representation" which they have in their structures of government. That is the issue which we must face.
I cannot get excited about the devolution debate because we have all been here before. I have heard my noble friend Lord Tonypandy for 40 years say the same thing. He will say that he has heard me and my friend Mr. Gwynfor Evans for 40 years, formerly my honourable friend in the other place, say the same thing. Of course, my noble friends Lord Hooson and Lord Geraint also say the same thing. It seems to me that we are not much further forward. However, I hope that the people of Wales and Scotland are a little further forward. They should have learnt one thing: when the Labour Party in opposition gets nearer to government, it begins to change its policy on devolution.
I do not regard that as a mortal sin. Rather I regard it as following the nature of the beast. The Labour Party, in terms of its membership, is more representative of the political balance of the Kingdom than the rest of us. Therefore, when it is faced with the prospect of actual 1505 power and of trying to deliver something as opposed to promising something, it has to make a retreat. As a result of its representativeness of forces throughout the UK, and because a preponderance of its membership is in Wales and Scotland traditionally, in order to maintain its position, it has in opposition to speak for Wales and Scotland, and in its coming to power, if it does so again, it cannot dare to legislate for them. At least it cannot legislate too much for them because the net result will be to remove its power structure in the whole of the Kingdom. I hope that at last people in Wales and Scotland will realise where supporting the Labour Party on a devolutionary ticket is bound to lead them.
Obviously your Lordships will say that that is not a problem for me because I can see increased votes for the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Yes, I can, but I am not as cynical as that, because that leads only to a further problem—the protracted negotiations about the nature of powers within the Union between the representatives of the SNP, Mr. Alex Salmond and others, and the representatives of Plaid Cymru. Therefore, there is no immediate short-term solution in that direction. Neither is there a solution in the direction of out-and-out unionism. That is where I have a difficulty with the Conservative Party, as I have a little difficulty with the Labour Party. I have no difficulty at all with the Liberal Democrats. If I were living and voting in England I should probably vote for them because clearly they are far to the left of the Labour Party.
As regards my difficulty with the Conservative Party, I have many friends on mainland Europe who are social conservatives, Christian Democrat conservatives and all kinds of conservatives. They believe in a social market, market forces and all the rest of it. However, I also know them as good Catalan nationalists, or good Basque nationalists of the non-violent kind, and so forth. On mainland Europe there are many conservatives who are also autonomists, and many are in power in regional governments and so forth.
I do not see why the fact that one is a Conservative in the UK leads to one being a unionist who believes in a unitary state and believes that the only expression of British political culture must be by way of a unitary state. That is an equation which for some historical reasons we understand Conservatives tend to make. It is not an entirely monolithic position because there was an initiative on Scottish devolution when, for instance, the Leader of the Conservative Party, Lord Home, was Prime Minister for a brief period. Therefore, there are voices of dissent on that issue even within the Conservative Party. We need to realise that our debate is not déjà vu to 20 years ago, but, as we have heard from some noble Lords, it is déjà vu to the 1890s.
This Kingdom always was made up of one big partner, one middle-sized partner, a smaller partner and a partner which became gradually more divorced but retained in part a relation to the Kingdom. That always was the case, and in my view when we come to look at the political system we need to legislate for that structure in a way which meets the legitimate demands of those regions and nationalities. That is why I wish to declare myself unexpectedly as entirely in favour of a 1506 referendum, but not the kind of referendum proposed by the Labour Party. A referendum on the White Paper—a "preferendum", as they now call it—is even worse than what we had in 1979. We need to have a multi-option referendum. I am in complete agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Gray. All the potential options will be drawn up—I do not know who will form the Select Committee to do that—and they will be put to the people after the legislation which has prepared that possibility has been brought forward.
When that appears, of course Mr. Alex Salmond will campaign for a referendum which includes the option of the SNP, together with other options. I would not dare to speak for him in this House all the time, but certainly on this issue I may speak for my former friend in another place. I am sure the Scottish Liberal Party will campaign for such a referendum. However, perhaps I may say to members of the Labour Party that they cannot expect us in the SNP and Plaid Cymru to turn out in the hills and valleys of Wales to campaign for a policy which they did not campaign for, which is where we were at in 1979.
I remember a car-boot full of leaflets—red Labour leaflets in one part of the boot, blue Conservative leaflets in another showing a picture of one Mr. Edward Heath and maintaining that some Conservatives were in favour of devolution, and some green leaflets for Plaid Cymru which we were told to hide away. Although we were Plaid members and supporters canvassing for Labour Party policy, we were the ones who did so and members of the Labour Party did not bother to turn up to most of the meetings. There were some few honourable exceptions, such as the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, who was then constitutional adviser to the Welsh Office.
When I hear the Leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom tell us that he will campaign for his policy I know what that means. Its members will turn up for one stage-managed rally in LLandrindod and that will be it. We have been there before. I say to members of the Labour Party that if they are serious about this issue, then legislate for it seriously. Let us have the promise of a multi-option referendum and not just two questions, as in Scotland. If the Scots can have two questions, the Welsh should have at least five. We must have a multi-option referendum and a serious debate so that we can come nearer to resolving the present balance.
This is not a slippery slope argument because there are no slippery slopes. There is just one big morass of various levels of powers, as mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Plant and Lord Sewel. We do not have a slippery slope. There are no simplistic models of political powers. There are levels of regionalism, competencies and subsidiarity throughout Western Europe and all developed democracies. Everything is comparative federalism. Why should the UK be so absolutely unitary in relation to all those? That is something I do not understand.
In my confusion I return to my multi-option referendum and look forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, as the last Welsh 1507 spokesman in the debate. I am sorry, I mean the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. We have too many Williamses and too many Thomases. That is why I made myself an Elis-Thomas. I wait for the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to announce the multi-option, multi-lingual referendum.
§ 7.20 p.m.
My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I must apologise that I may not be able to remain until the end of the debate. But I welcome the opportunity of being able to speak on the question of devolution. In particular, I should like to refer to the question of devolution in England, which has not been dealt with in any great detail, certainly by the parties opposite. I well understand that it may not raise the same passions as devolution for Scotland and Wales, but I suggest that it raises similar difficulties, especially if it were to be established only in some parts of England.
Perhaps I should say what I am in favour of before I criticise what other people have put forward. Twenty eight years in local government have left me quite enthusiastic for it. I favour subsidiarity between central and local government. I favour partnership between central and local government and central government regional offices. I favour local government having the means to lead the community. I favour local authorities coming together for different purposes, perhaps in different groups for different purposes, not least for European matters. But a belief in all that does not mean that you must have a belief in what is proposed; namely, an additional tier of administration for government.
Of course I find attractive some aspects of local and regional government to be found in some of the other countries of Europe. Sometimes I think that there are things which we could learn from that but they were developed against a totally different historical and political culture. I do not believe that we can pick out elements of those systems and bring them into the United Kingdom.
I give your Lordships one example. Very often people in the United Kingdom look to the Netherlands as a good example of local and regional government. But I do not believe that any members on either side of your Lordships' House would accept the situation where the Queen's commissioner in the provinces or burgomaster was appointed by the Crown, which is the case in the Netherlands.
Therefore, I am very doubtful about the wisdom of trying to introduce regional government into England. I believe that it would be little more than yet another local government reorganisation. I do not believe that outside political circles and local government circles, where it is discussed almost endlessly, there is any popular demand for it.
Nobody has answered the question: what are the regions? I understand that it is proposed to establish those regional assemblies according to the boundaries of central government's own regional offices. It may be that there would be a referendum as regards whether there should be a move from indirectly appointed 1508 assemblies to directly elected assemblies. Are those regions to be determined arbitrarily? Will the referendum be held to deal only within those pre-established limits or will there be a discussion about which places should fall within which regions? On the basis of local government reorganisation, that would be an extremely long discussion. It is unlikely that very much agreement would be found between the various places competing to go into one region or another.
The truth of the matter is that there is not a great identity by the public at large with the regions as such in England. People want good quality services but I submit that they are not that concerned as to the particular organisation or the level by which they are delivered. Having spent a very long time in local government, I could perhaps regret that. But that is a fact that we should remember and I believe that that is indeed the case.
Equally, the question arises as to what function would be assigned to those regional assemblies. Initial responsibility for economic planning and transport, although what aspects of transport is not spelt out, is suggested. Are we to have a situation in which, perhaps in different regions, those regional assemblies will exercise different functions? Will Parliament and the public accept a situation in which different functions are exercised in some regions and for those regions perhaps without an assembly, those functions would be exercised by central government? Or is the truth of the matter, as I suggest, that it is really, as with local government reorganisation, that the bulk of the powers will go upwards from local authorities into the proposed regional level?
I believe that that is the nub of the problem and—dare I say it? —it is probably the nub of the problem in the more weighty discussion about the reform of Parliament. What functions Westminster is prepared to cede is the key question. In my submission, it is the key question also in relation to any reform of your Lordships' House because other parts of the parliamentary system may not be too content with additional powers being ceded in any particular direction.
Another anomaly arises out of the proposal for regionalisation in England which concerns London in particular. As I understand the proposal by the party opposite, it is to establish a strategic authority for London with a range of responsibilities, again, it is alleged, taking no responsibilities from local government as it exists at present but all from central government. That remains to be seen. But there is an anomaly because if you are to establish a regional authority coterminous with a government office, then there is a government office for London. Will London and that area be exercising more functions than the other regional authorities, if they were established? That question remains quite unanswered.
As regards London, I believe that all the talk about establishing yet another tier is based on a number of false assumptions. They are assumptions that all that needs remedying in and around the area of the capital will be remedied by the creation of another tier of 1509 government. In fact, what is needed is good local government and resources. There is the assumption that all the ills flow from the lack of a strategic authority when many of the matters referred to were never the responsibility of an upper tier of government in London. There is the assumption that London is the only city without a strategic authority, without any recognition of the fact, even if that proposition were true—and I am not sure that it is—that London is not typical of other large cities. It is of a size, geographical area and development which is quite different from other cities both in this country and in the rest of the world and the community of interest, other than in the widest possible sense, in matters such as transport does not exist.
I shall not take up the time of the House in discussing London in greater detail. But it is typical of a solution which suggests that a tier of government will remedy everything. I suggest that London, with its established boroughs, can govern itself very well. That is not to say that there should be no development; that the co-operation between London authorities, as with other authorities in the rest of the country, should not be encouraged; that the confidence which comes from that co-operation should not be built upon and perhaps even formalised in some particular way. But new ways of working are needed to achieve real improvements and not new tiers of government in London or the rest of England.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
My Lords, I trust that your Lordships will not object to me saying that there is always in my eyes a slight touch of irony when your Lordships spend so much time discussing democracy. It hardly fits well into the remit of your Lordships' House. But having said that, I welcome this opportunity to contribute to this debate.
I begin at once by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, and my noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield for their very generous tributes to me on my resignation as co-chairman of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It was typical of both noble Lords that they should be so generous in their tributes to me and I am very grateful for those comments.
I should like to say a few words on my own position. Lest anyone should think that between Thursday of last week and Wednesday of this week I suffered a blinding conversion, perhaps I may dismiss that idea out of hand. I should also like to explain that the proposals for a Scottish parliament do not belong to the Labour Party; they do not belong to the Liberal Democrat Party; they do not belong to the STUC, the Churches, the Green Party or, indeed, the "Campaign for a Scottish Assembly": they belong to the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
There is an argument in favour of a referendum, but there is also an argument against it. My complaint is that that argument never took place. As has already been said, the Scottish Constitutional Convention should have been consulted. It was not, and I took the view that it was time for someone to stand up and protest so that a voice be heard.
1510 As regards the proposals for legislation to allow a referendum to take place after the next general election, I should stress that my great hope is that it will succeed. Because I am so passionately in favour of a Scottish parliament, I shall campaign for a "yes" vote. However, in all honesty, I have to say that my great fear, to use football parlance, is that what appears to be the golden goal of 1996 may well turn out to be the missed penalty kick of 1997. I leave it at that, and pass on to the proposals for a Scottish parliament.
In the 30 years that I have campaigned for a Scottish parliament, I have always been able to respect the views of those who take an opposite view to the one that I hold. I shall continue to respect those views because there are views on all sides of the argument. However, one of the things that worries me deeply is the way in which the politics of fear continue to be used in order to try to decide a very important constitutional question. With respect, it simply is not acceptable to threaten that inward investment will dry up. Again, with respect, it simply is not acceptable to threaten that, if the people of Scotland dare vote to have their own Scottish parliament, the block grant will be cut in half. That is the politics of fear. The net effect of using that fear is to drive more and more people into the arms of the separatists.
In passing, I should tell the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, that I shall not venture across the Severn Bridge into Wales. For one thing, as a good Scot, the toll charges are far too high for me. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, mentioned the possibility of both Plaid Cymru and the SNP campaigning for a "yes" vote in the referendum. I shall appeal particularly to the SNP not to do so. I say that in all seriousness because during the last referendum in 1979 in Scotland, every time the SNP said, "Vote yes because it is the first step on the road to separation", it switched off another 10,000 votes. The people of Scotland simply would not have it.
That is where I join forces with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who opened the debate. However, I should say that it is about the only point upon which he and I are in agreement. I am just as passionately and as strongly in favour of preserving the Union as any other Member of your Lordships' House. The question is: how do we preserve and strengthen the Union? My answer is that we would strengthen and preserve the Union by devolving power in the creation of a Scottish parliament, along the lines suggested and worked out in great detail by the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
Nowhere on the point of inward investment is there an example of any company coming into Scotland and saying that, if there were a Scottish parliament, it would not have done so. Indeed, if I may say so, such a question was often asked. The Scottish Information Office would give the question to a friendly journalist and, as a new factory was being opened, its chairman would be asked: "Would you have come here had there been a Scottish parliament?" One of two answers was usually received: either an outright "yes"; or, alternatively, "It would not have made any difference", which, in a way, is an indirect yes. That answer was received so 1511 often that the SIO stopped planting the question. If anyone wants to talk about the drying up of inward investment, he should look at what British Steel did. Indeed, it closed down a plant in Scotland (which is part of the United Kingdom) and built it in Catalonia, in the devolved part of Spain! Therefore, there is no evidence to suggest that inward investment would dry up.
I turn now to the question of revenue raising powers. In an earlier debate in this House, I pointed out that during the 1979 referendum campaign the Conservative Party told people not to vote for that Bill because the late Lord Home would introduce a Bill which contained fiscal powers. I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Goold, who is a well-known employer in Scotland, that it always strikes me as passing strange that the Conservatives are not quite in favour of different rates of income tax in the country but—by God!—they are in favour of different wage rates. It seems to be all right to pay the people who work in Scotland lower wages and nothing is done about it. There must be a degree of consistency in the whole argument.
The political scene in Scotland has changed beyond all recognition. When I first entered the other place we had 68 parliamentary constituencies in Scotland, while the Conservatives held 22 of those seats. However, we now have 72 parliamentary constituencies and the Conservative party holds only 10 of them. Indeed, some Members of your Lordships' House came to this Chamber much earlier than they had anticipated because of decisions made by the Scottish electorate.
As I said, the scene has changed. One of the continuing problems is the imposition of unwanted legislation on an unwilling population by an unrepresentative government. The people of Scotland have the settled view that we should have a devolved Scottish parliament. Ireland has been mentioned and, indeed, the West Lothian question. Again, when I entered the other place, although Irish MPs could vote on all legislation affecting other parts of the United Kingdom, we could not even ask a Question about Northern Ireland. It was only on the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland that we were allowed to ask Questions and debate the whole issue of the Province.
I shall finish on the following note because I do not want to delay your Lordships for too long. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that the Prime Minister will visit Dumfries on Friday. The Scottish Grand Committee—that travelling circus that goes around Scotland—is also meeting there on Friday. But there is yet another engagement in Dumfries on Friday; namely, the bicentenary of the death of Robert Burns. Indeed, it was in July 200 years ago that Robert Burns died and was subsequently buried in Dumfries.
When Burns went to Dumfries it was the most unpopular—indeed it was the only unpopular—time of his life. He was a tax collector and worked for that mad Hanoverian king, "jingling Georgie" who was on 1512 the throne. The people of Dumfries abused Burns and shouted at him. In order to persuade the people that he had not forgotten them, he penned the following words. This is what the Prime Minister should think about on Friday night when he attends the Burns' celebration. Burns penned the words,Who shall not say God Save the KingShall hang from the highest steepleBut while we say God Save the KingWe'll no forget the people".Let the Prime Minister remember the people of Scotland, because the people of Scotland will remember this Government and when the next election comes their feet will not touch the ground.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I am sure the whole House has been looking forward to the noble Lord's speech and he has not let us down. He has lived nearer to the question that we are debating as regards Scotland than have most people, and for a longer time. He knows a great deal about it. We all respect the work he has done on the Scottish Constitutional Convention, whether or not we agree with the conclusions.
Long ago, back in the 1960s, I was one of many Scots who felt that a directly elected Scottish assembly of some sort might be a wise way forward. The problem then, and the problem ever since, has been to find a system for such an assembly that would bring the government of Scotland nearer to Scots without in the process destroying the United Kingdom. Every attempt so far has failed. In 1978 Mr. Enoch Powell made a speech in another place to the effect that there is an incompatibility between home rule, devolved legislative power and the maintenance of the Union of the United Kingdom.
Presumably, when he became leader, Mr. Blair thought that at last he had a plan that would overcome that incompatibility and would work. He came three times to Scotland as the new leader and made his promise to the people of Scotland on each occasion. That promise has been constantly reiterated and elaborated by his Scottish spokesman, Mr. George Robertson. What Mr. Blair had perhaps failed to appreciate was that the convention of the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, which produced the ideas Labour was picking up, had worked to very limited terms of reference indeed. As a result it had concentrated on a scheme for Scotland, and on selling it to Scotland, and had not taken as extensive an account as it might of likely consequences and reactions elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It was not asked to do that, and it did not do it. This, I believe, was compounded by the convention only reporting on that which it could agree. As the noble Lord, Lord Plant, said in his speech, it strove for consensus. Therefore on some of the thorniest and most basic issues of all, such as the position of the Secretary of State for Scotland, it made no recommendation at all.
In its recent report, Delivering Constitutional Reform, the constitution unit, at paragraph 39, concludes—I believe importantly— 1513In approaching the task of constitutional reform it is vital to understand the interplay between the political, practical and constitutional frameworks".The Labour Party, it seems, has had a sharp reminder of that dictum in the past week or two as the electorate south of the Border, and indeed in Scotland, began to prick up its ears and the first whiff of grapeshot has wafted to Westminster. Scotland's earlier promise has turned into a promise of a referendum on a White Paper. That does not seem to me a responsible proposal, but Mr. Blair is certainly right to backtrack—if he sees it as a means of backtracking.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, that without tax raising ability the parliament would not be properly answerable. Yet given the power to vary Scots tax, as the bulk of the parliament's income would come via a block grant decided at Westminster, the level of income tax in Scotland—whether we like it or not—would be seen to be a consequence of the size of that block grant.
Imagine, for example, England's Members of Parliament happily agreeing to an increase in Scotland's United Kingdom funding when the Scots parliament was reducing—or, indeed, failing to raise—Scots income tax. I hope that I am not indulging in what the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, referred to as the politics of fear when I suggest that this is bound to be an immensely divisive notion as regards the other parts of the United Kingdom. In fact whether or not the parliament were to have tax raising powers, the way the block grant was calculated would come into the limelight, as the funding of the Scottish Office has never come into the limelight before. It would become a matter of constant curiosity and probably political controversy—and not only in Scotland.
If the current formula for Scottish Office funding were followed—as the constitutional convention suggests it might be—people south of the Border might well ask questions of the kind that my noble friend Lord Goold posed. Why are the Government spending 25 per cent. more in Scotland than in England? Why is local government support 44 per cent. higher? Why do councils spend 30 per cent. more per head, and 75 per cent. more on capital? Why, over eight years, have their staff in Scotland increased by 6 per cent. when English councils' staff have fallen by 6 per cent? How does health service provision compare? I believe that the explanations are largely due to Scotland's geography, but they are not entirely due to that. Those questions will be keenly pursued.
Likewise, how fair would the system look to people south of the Border with—as might be the picture first time round—72 Scots MPs (more than Scotland's fair share) voting on United Kingdom and English legislation at Westminster; a Chancellor who is a Scots MP, a Foreign Secretary who is a Scots MP, a Government Chief Whip who is a Scots MP, a Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor born and educated in Scotland, while 129 further Scots legislate in Scotland with no one else involved at all, not even the House of Lords as a revising chamber? How fair would that look south of the Border?
1514 It may well be that the Secretary of State for Scotland, whose job would largely be given to the new parliament, would be redundant. But if so, who would fight Scotland's corner in the Cabinet, for example, as regards the block grant? I believe that Mr. Blair should backtrack further and take stock. The Westminster Parliament has in any case come much closer to Scotland of late with the massive devolution to the Scottish Office and, as noble Lords have described, Scots policies, proposals and Bills being regularly discussed in Scotland by the Scottish Grand Committee and by Select Committees of the other place and of this House. I believe we could go further. We could perhaps follow the thinking of my noble friend Lord Bowness in his speech just now and involve the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—the body comprised of all the new all-purpose local government councils in Scotland. We could perhaps involve them formally in assisting in the drafting and passage of legislation.
All those changes are being developed without putting a strain on the Union, or threatening our existing constitutional settlement. I hope that your Lordships will continue, as you have done up to this point, to support and participate in them. I hope, too, that today's debate, including many able speeches by noble Lords on the Labour and Liberal Benches, will make a small contribution towards persuading the United Kingdom that the Labour Party should not be given the chance of implementing proposals which I believe the Union might not survive.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mar and Kellie
My Lords, I welcome the debate and will focus, not surprisingly, on constitutional change for Scotland. I shall start with some remarks to establish my position in the debate and then consider some alternatives—the disadvantages and advantages of the convention's scheme.
Foremost, I believe that sovereignty lies with the people of Scotland rather than with any parliament. That is a view established in the claim of right 1989. Secondly, an unprecedented agreement has been achieved within the constitutional convention between several parties and other bodies. Thirdly, like others, I allocate some blame to this House for the loss of Ireland from the United Kingdom. Fourthly, I believe that violence is unnecessary. Constitutional change should be the result of the intellectual decision of the people of Scotland. I reject any suggestion of ethnic Scotsmen and that darker side of nationalism. I refer throughout to the residents of Scotland, both born and migrant.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo increases. As regards the democratic deficit, how do we justify a minority government to our children? The Scottish Grand Committee goes round Scotland demonstrating minority government. Why do we have to go to another country for our domestic legislation when that legislation cannot apply elsewhere due to our different legal system?
Why can Northern Ireland have an assembly? Is it a handicap to want greater autonomy within the United Kingdom but not want to join another country?
1515 The lessons of history, of Irish home rule, are being ignored. The lessons are these: act now and do not leave it too late. There has been talk today that we must not legislate for the break-up of the United Kingdom. This Parliament legislated for the break-up of the United Kingdom when it ratified the Act setting up the Irish Free State; so it has been done before. There is a popular demand for change in Scotland which is not necessarily to do with economic advantage but with freedom for its own sake.
Before recommending the scheme presented by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, I wish to mention three alternatives. The first is to continue the unacceptable status quo and that feeling of colonial rule. The second is to go for a nation state, the republic of Scotland. That is rather 19th century and, I believe, unnecessary. The loss to Scotland of the United Kingdom single market, with its existing common currency, common interest rates and business regulation, would be destabilising and disadvantageous. But it might be easier to organise if there is total opposition to a scheme of Scottish self-government within the United Kingdom; that is, opposition to such a settlement, or by the rise of completely contradictory political attitudes, say, over Europe, or arguments about nationality or defence postures.
A third and quite promising development might follow Professor A. V. Dicey's proposals in the 1880s for a Grand Committee, with the leader of the Scottish majority party as Secretary of State. I should like to quote from the Scotsman in January 1996. It states:A precedent does exist, however, for a Scottish Grand Committee with teeth. And sharp ones. In 1882, Professor A. V. Dicey … wrote to his friend James Bryce, the MP for Aberdeen, that Westminster should grant Parnell (who would be Chief Secretary for Ireland in the Cabinet) full autonomy in terms of Irish legislation.This would be 'a bona fide attempt to treat Irish members as persons entitled to decide on Irish legislation', so long as they acknowledged Parliament's overall sovereignty, which would be latent, restrained by convention.Bryce demurred, on the grounds that a basic loyalty to Westminster was necessary, and that a degree of confidence simply didn't exist in Ireland. Hence his own backing for an Irish parliament.[Bryce] did not favour a Scottish parliament, as he thought such conventions already applied. As, indeed, did Dicey, who recognised this as early as 1867: 'Few governments would dare to legislate for Scotland or Ireland in the face of the united opposition of the Scotch or Irish Members'".Unfortunately that has not been carried on. We have had examples of the poll tax, the VAT on heating—it is particularly crucial in our colder climate; it is one of the ultimate London taxes—and the Skye Bridge tolls which defy the Union by imposing a higher toll in Scotland than in England, when under the Act of Union tolls are supposed to be equal.
The home rule scheme, agreed following the resolute search for consensus, plans for a democratic parliament to control the functions of the Scottish Office: a parliament subsidiary to the UK Parliament. The previous parliament was undemocratic, being elected by but 2,000 electors. The proposed parliament will be elected by proportional representation using the additional members scheme similar to that devised 1516 by the UK for West Germany in 1945. Of the 129 members, 73 will be first-past-the-post constituency members and 56 from the eight Euro-constituencies, seven from each. Powerful committees of the proposed Parliament would consult widely and be able to propose legislations as would the ministers of the Scottish government. That would give a big role to back-benchers. I agree with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland.
The constitutional settlement will continue the policy of equalisation of UK funds, recognising the greater difficulty of administering Scotland, with one-third of the UK land mass and one-twelfth of the UK population. The parliament will have autonomy over its spending programme and the power of variation over income tax alone, if necessary, to achieve that programme. Above all, the Scottish parliament will be accountable to the people of Scotland.
I now speak to the party on my left—or perhaps on my right. British Labour has to convince the Scottish people that it will not renege on the scheme to which Scottish Labour has agreed. Scottish Liberal Democrats are most unhappy, to put it mildly, with the British Labour decision not wholeheartedly to promote a home rule parliament and to offer something less—a devolved assembly without tax-varying powers as an alternative. Scottish Liberal Democrats worry that British Labour will impose a U-turn on the commitment to proportional representation. I hope for confirmation that British Labour will not repeat last week's change of policy.
A pre-legislative referendum can ask only whether it is expedient to proceed—and expedient means that, broadly speaking, it is a good idea to do so. I liked the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, because it was positive yet cautious.
I now turn to some of the disadvantages of the home rule scheme. Such a scheme requires considerable tactful and willing co-operation. Everyone must want to make it work. Similarly, the rise of incompatible policies would put the settlement in jeopardy. That refers to those powers not transferred to the Scottish parliament, which are foreign policy, defence, macroeconomic policy, social security and nationality.
Devolution of parliament without tax-varying powers may be tempting for the faint-hearted, but it will have little effect and generate much frustration and more whingeing. Even Scottish local authorities have tax-varying powers. There is the possibility of a democratically demanded increased taxation which would be offset by better services. There will be more MPs' salaries to pay. That will be offset presumably by a reduction in MPs at Westminster and, more significantly, a reduction in unelected members of quangos, which would become more democratic, presumably using members of the Scottish parliament.
I now wish to look at some of the advantages. We have the transfer of powers from Westminster to a truly democratic parliament accountable to the Scottish people. Scots law will be decided by Scottish representatives, recognising that only activity in Scotland is subject to Scots law. The Civil Service is 1517 already in place, awaiting democratically elected Scottish masters. There is no extra tier of government proposed, as Westminster's task is merely transferred to the Scottish parliament. It is a balancing manoeuvre. Scottish local authorities have just been altered to fit in better with a future Scottish parliament.
By staying within the United Kingdom, we shall avoid a trade war, as is the "unmentionable" status as awarded to Ireland after 1922. There can be better economic management, as business leaders will be more accessible to members of the Scottish parliament and vice versa. Education, training and health can be rebuilt to Scottish standards. That way, we can invest in our people.
Unlike the 1979 scheme, this one avoids central belt domination. The three island seats and the 56 seats from the eight Euro-constituencies, five of which are rural, ensure a more than adequate representation for the Borders and Galloway, Grampians, Highlands and Islands.
The result of a Scottish general election is not a foregone conclusion either. This is a parliament in which the government must secure more than 50 per cent. of the popular vote. Based on their 45 per cent. share of the vote, Scottish Labour would need a coalition partner or even face a rainbow coalition in opposition, as does Fianna Fail at present in the Dàil.
The home rule scheme brings choice to all UK citizens—the choice of living within different regimes and societies without having to change citizenship. People already migrate to Scotland for its sense of community and values. Others will come for its education, health, social services and enterprise and that sense of communal responsibility.
To conclude, this new parliament will enable the United Kingdom to be a more democratic and less resentful place. The prize is ultimately a federal Britain with its single market, all within a fair and democratic constitutional set up. Perhaps it will ultimately be necessary for Scotland to repeat the 1918 general election in which Sinn Fein won a huge majority, despite the majority of voters wanting home rule. It certainly led to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, but by then it was too late. Do we Scots have to vote for separation en masse in order to achieve home rule? I commend to the House these plans for Scottish democracy as wrought by consensus in the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Lord Nickson
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate. I wish to approach it from the view of the Scottish businessman. Perhaps I may give my credentials in that connection: I have worked for over 40 years in various Scottish businesses, mainly in Glasgow but also in Edinburgh. I have seen Scottish business through the other end of the telescope, through my time at Centrepoint. I have also lived within sight of the Wallace Monument, in "Braveheart" country, one might say, although not for as long as the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, nor the ancestors of the noble 1518 Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. However, it is long enough to understand what I might call the Braveheart mentality and the extreme patriotic fervour that exists in terms of what is needed in Scotland. I suggest that it is at a peak which I have not known in my lifetime and that England and the English are probably less popular than they have been for a long time.
That does not mean that I am in favour of the proposals that come from the party opposite. Indeed, my concern with the referendum is that the tide of emotion might lead people to opt for something that is not fully understood. My great worry is that a referendum without a devolution Bill thoroughly spelling out the consequences might mean that what Scotland might vote for is not fully understood and has grave consequences for the United Kingdom.
I said that I would speak from the business point of view and that is what I intend to do. What does business anywhere need? It needs a sound economy and sound money. It needs an enterprise culture; it needs a competitive infrastructure; it needs access to markets and a skilled, motivated and well paid workforce, and it needs a level playing field in relation to costs. I suggest that Scotland has all those and Scottish business has prospered and thrived in that environment for many years now. The proof and test of it is how Scotland has leapt up the regional league in relation to other areas of the United Kingdom over the past few years. It is disadvantaged not at all. It is seen as a good place in which to do business.
One of my concerns is business costs. Many noble Lords referred to the percentage of public expenditure which Scotland enjoys. The figures are arguable, but roughly Scottish gross domestic product is about £50 billion. Public expenditure for the whole of Scotland is probably about £23 billion. Per capita that works out at £4,500 per head as against about £3,500 in England and rather more in Wales. There is a great fiscal benefit.
The CBI in Scotland has just issued 39 Questions to all four political parties. It seeks to establish their answers to Scottish business. It behoves every political party to answer the questions before an election because that will determine the attitude of Scottish business to the parties' election manifestos. I suggest that the figure of 39 questions has probably more to do with John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps than the 39 articles of the Church of England.
I wish to speak for large Scottish companies. Small and medium-sized enterprises are hugely important in terms of employment. But Scotland has benefited from having a number of highly successful very large companies that are now centred in Scotland and wish to remain there. That was not true not so long ago. Perhaps I may list companies like the banks, the life insurance companies, the mutuals and, in composite terms, General Accident, Scottish & Newcastle and the two great private utilities, Scottish Power and Hydro-electric. Although it is not a plc, United Distillers is included. Thanks to my noble friend Lord MacFarlane, it is firmly based in Scotland.
1519 I must declare an interest. I am a pensioner of Scottish & Newcastle. I retired last year as a director, and I was chairman of that company through the 1980s. I must declare an interest so far as General Accident is concerned, as I am deputy chairman of that company. I am also a small shareholder in both.
I do not believe that Scottish & Newcastle would have survived in Scotland today if there had not been a very powerful Secretary of State for Scotland with a very strong voice in the Cabinet at that time. I do not believe that we should have survived the takeover bid from John Elliott, the chairman of Elders. That is the second bid that I have tried to resist. The other was from Rupert Murdoch in Collins. That, sadly, is no longer a strong Scottish company. It is very important that there is a strong Scottish voice in a strong Cabinet prepared to give support.
Perhaps I may quote from an article in yesterday's edition of the Scotsman, which said that devolution "would cost money". The article states:Scottish & Newcastle [is now] a true European player … a world away from S&N of only a few years ago … it is disappointing to find that its management appears to be in the vanguard of opposition to devolution in Scotland. It is one thing for the knights and peers of Scotland's establishment" —that presumably excludes me—to frown on such developments — But when a chief executive of the authority of Brian Stewart says bluntly 'it would cost us money', he is only reflecting the concerns of a substantial part of Scotland's business community".The article goes on to say:It is late, but not too late, to change the policies being cooked up in an Islington kitchen. Mr. Stewart is — worth listening to".Why is he worth listening to? Let me go on to say. First, because of a potential tax on employees which, as noble Lords have pointed out, might be up to 10 per cent. It is a difficult matter running an international business from Scotland. People have to cross borders and travel to and fro. You have to move people about. It is not easy to attract very senior executives. That is one reason why it might be difficult. My own family, the Nicksons, came I believe entirely from the Western Marches, where Border reivers were quite independent and free to choose which side of the Border they would be on, where the pickings were best. That might happen again.
The second concern is that of cost to business. It was not very long ago that the ratio of costs to produce a barrel of beer was 1p in Burton-on-Trent to 8p in Edinburgh. Not long ago, if a tourist laid his head on a pillow in a hotel in Edinburgh, the price was £3, whereas in a similar hotel in London it was £1. Not long ago, the business rates on Jenners were very nearly as great as those for Harrods. Not long ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, will recall, the rateable value of the chemical and oil plant at Grangemouth was about 40 per cent. of that in Central Region. So, to be headquartered in Scotland depends very much on those factors.
I am not threatening. I am not talking fear. I am merely stating fact when I say that it would be just as easy for Scottish & Newcastle, with just as much justification, to be in Newcastle—with which the north 1520 east of England might be delighted—if it became a disadvantage. General Accident offers in a global market-place. Its senior executives come from all over the world, from the United States, Australia, New Zealand—and from York. The life company is in York. There are very strong reasons why it would be better for it to be situated elsewhere than in Scotland. I suggest that the same applies to a lot of other fund management. It requires very positive board decisions to say, "We are Scottish, we want to stay here, and we are convinced that there is no disadvantage to our employees or our shareholders".
Inward investment has been mentioned. I am not threatening. I am not talking fear. I have a little experience. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, made one or two somewhat disparaging remarks about quangos. I have to confess that I have been on many quangos in Scotland. I was appointed to my first quango by Eric Heffer when Mr. Wedgwood Benn was Secretary of State. I was the last chairman of the Scottish Development Agency. That had a wonderfully representative board, composed of a lot of my friends from local government and the STUC. It became Scottish Enterprise. In that capacity I had the good fortune to learn a certain amount about inward investment through the Locate in Scotland board and the Scottish Economic Council.
I am saying only that I fear lest the climate and the perception of Scotland change, lest the certainty and the business base change. It is a very fragile thing. Inward investment has been highly successful. I would not want to see it put at risk.
Those are my reasons. I am not threatening and not speaking to arouse fear. I am merely saying that that is why I am so concerned about some of these matters. There are three dangers from a business point of view. I call them the three Cs. They are: confidence, continuity and a competitive climate. I fear that devolution might produce the three Ds: doubt, disunity and disadvantage.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is he saying that the people of Scotland would elect a parliament and people there would alienate valuable companies in Scotland?
§ Lord Nickson
No, my Lords, I am merely saying that, if it became competitively disadvantageous to be in Scotland because the costs were higher and that disadvantaged shareholders or was a disadvantage to employees, then it might be necessary to think again.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, I shall focus on the need for change in the governance of Wales. There are two main reasons for reform of the constitutional position of Wales. The first I call the national reason. The second I call the democratic reason.
The national reason can be put this way. Steeped in our own history, culture and traditions, there is a resentment felt by many people in Wales that we as a nation are without a greater say in our own affairs. That 1521 resentment in some form or other goes back for centuries. It developed a radical political movement during the course of the last century. I believe that the resentment has grown very much stronger in recent years. I am conscious of a feeling that, unless the Welsh people have a far more effective involvement in Welsh issues, it will soon become increasingly difficult to safeguard the very nature and essence of the Welsh nation and to transmit our national heritage. That concern emerges very clearly in the lecture, "Wales—Yesterday and Tomorrow", which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos delivered at the National Eisteddfod of Wales last year.
The Prime Minister pronounced in last Wednesday's speech, which I attended (and I was grateful for the invitation):It [our constitution] embodies a set of values, a legacy of understandings that have developed year by year over the centuries—an understanding that is breathed in Parliament".Despite the picture that the Prime Minister has painted in such moving terms, I am afraid that we do know that the understanding by Westminster of important issues in Wales has too often been inadequate, and sometimes totally lacking. We have been pretty helpless to obtain legislation to prevent the unstitching of the fabric of Welsh society in the south Wales valleys where I live, and where the miners have created a community of immense richness and depth for over 150 years, or, again, the unstitching of the fabric of our Welsh-speaking communities where I was brought up—communities that have evolved over 1,500 years.
The second reason for reform can be put this way. There is a growing determination in Wales that there should be greater direct accountability to the Welsh people of existing central government administration and nominated agencies in Wales. We have 36 Members of Parliament with their seats in Wales; but plainly, they are a very small minority in Westminster, and are unable to influence the policies of a Conservative government which are today supported by only six of the 36 elected Members from Wales. It is clear that a Conservative government in Westminster will always have its will in Wales, whatever the view of the majority of elected Members from Wales and Welsh public opinion. That is manifestly unfair. The question being asked is that referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson: is that a form of elective dictatorship?
The Welsh Office is by now responsible for almost everything that happens in Wales, apart from defence, law and order and the fire brigade services. Yet it can only be questioned for 45 minutes in Parliament every four weeks on what it is doing. I have no wish to be unkind to the Welsh Office but, unfortunately, the leadership that one had rather hoped it would provide has not developed.
It has often been asked in your Lordships' House during the passage of a Bill: "Why is it that the Welsh Office has failed to modify its provisions to suit Welsh conditions?" I shall give just one example to drive home the point. The Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill currently before this House has no popular support in Wales and is 1522 potentially very damaging to the existing nursery provisions which are of high quality and of which we are particularly proud. However, up to now the Government has refused to amend it in any way whatever to suit the position in Wales. Is that the way to treat a nation?
The Welsh Local Government Association in its written evidence last May to the Select Committee on relations between central and local government informed the Committee:… Our perception is that the discretion afforded to the Welsh Office through its policy making and legislative role is more apparent than real".Those are words from very wise and experienced counsellors. I believe that the people of Wales are determined to alter this state of affairs.
In his speech on the constitution, the Prime Minister reiterated repeatedly that he only favours practical change. Most of us would go along with that, so where do we go from here? Wales is an ancient nation. I was very grateful that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in his opening speech referred to the Welsh nation almost every time he referred to Wales whereas, in the speech of the Prime Minister, Wales is a country. But it is a nation of distinct traditions, culture and history. It has its own administrative machinery. It seems to us that it is therefore at a natural and appropriate level for devolution of executive or legislative powers to an elected assembly. What we seek, therefore, is not a "grand plan", but a practical scheme for the devolution of central government in Wales.
I have heard it argued, and it was argued in the report of the Kilbrandon Royal Commission that devolution to Wales should only be applied as part of a uniform system of devolution for Great Britain as a whole. I do not believe that there is anything in this point. I know of no technical reason why devolution should not be allowed to Wales and Scotland to meet their demands, to be followed, perhaps, as my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees suggested earlier on, by elected assemblies in the several regions or provinces of England.
The crux of the problem seems to me to be whether the constitution of the United Kingdom can now evolve in such a way as to allow the different nations of the realm to exercise freedom of choice in expenditure and therefore differing priorities in given services for their people. I suggest that its capacity to evolve along these lines is the criterion by which to judge the vibrancy of the British constitution. Alas, in his speech, the Prime Minister makes no reference to this criterion.
I come to my final points. This is not the occasion to discuss in detail the functions which should be devolved to a Welsh elected assembly and which should remain in Westminster, but I believe that there is no secrecy about the nature of those functions. The transferred functions would be roughly congruent with those at present exercised by the Secretary of State for Wales and, to the best of my knowledge, it is not proposed that the assembly would assume powers presently exercised by the local authorities.
1523 I should now like to comment very briefly on three political issues which have emerged repeatedly in the course the debate. I recognise that the setting up of a Welsh assembly raises the question of the future of the office of the Secretary of State for Wales. Clearly, the continuation of his office with its existing functions would be incompatible with the existence of an elected assembly. However, on the other hand, I recognise that Wales would benefit enormously by having a Secretary of State to represent its interests in those major subject areas which are not devolved, such as the policies and rules of the European Union, macro economics, external trade, law and order and defence. I do not therefore accept that there is a choice to be made between an elected Welsh assembly and the office of a Secretary of State. I do not accept that the office of Secretary of State has to be sacrificed in order to set up a Welsh assembly.
Secondly, it is urged by many Peers that devolution raises the issue in relation to the 36 Welsh MPs of whether they would continue to have a say on English legislation whilst Wales has its own assembly. If the Welsh assembly is without primary legislative functions, it seems to me that the question does not arise. Even if it is to be given legislative functions over the devolved subjects, it is not to be forgotten—although it frequently is—that there will be far more MPs from English constituencies who will have a far greater say in non-devolved major matters affecting Wales than Welsh MPs would have through their vote on English matters.
Thirdly, I recognise that there are those who genuinely fear that devolution would create areas of conflict and lead to the break up of the United Kingdom. We have heard a great deal about that and there are two views upon it, but I do not accept that devolution is a prelude to dismemberment of the Union.
I conclude with a saying which is both ancient and modern: "A living constitution must change with the times".
§ 8.29 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, I shall start with a gentle but none the less heartfelt rebuke to the usual channels for planning these two vitally important debates on the constitution for the week of the Queen's annual visit to Edinburgh. It is not the first time that important Scottish business has been arranged for this week. In fact, there are times when some of the more cynical among us suspect that it is done on purpose to prevent us taking part. I am sure that the Chief Whip, who is himself a Scot, would not dream of doing such a thing; but we very much hope that he will ensure that this does not happen again.
I should like to join with other noble Lords in welcoming the return of the Stone of Scone to Scotland and suggest that to begin with it should, perhaps, repose in St. Giles's Cathedral.
It will be exactly one year ago tomorrow since I introduced a debate on the government of Scotland: independence, devolution or the status quo. I said then that a referendum should be held before any devolution legislation were enacted, but only after detailed 1524 proposals for the Scots parliament had been published and every voter in Scotland had had time to study and discuss them and any problems to which they might lead. I still stand by the necessity of holding a referendum, for I am sure that in a general election there are too many other issues to muddy the waters. However, I believe that Mr. Dalyell is right that the referendum should be held after the Bill has received Royal Assent, for, as the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, who has just come back into the Chamber, said, a Bill may emerge from its passage through Parliament bearing little resemblance to the White Paper on which it was based. It is vital that the people concerned thoroughly understand exactly what is proposed and what the consequences are likely to be, particularly to their pockets and to the services and standard of living which they enjoy, before any referendum takes place.
In last year's debate, I asked a number of questions about problems which the constitutional convention had encountered and which did not seem to have been solved. The voting system did not appear to have been finalised. The question of the number of MPs who should continue to sit at Westminster had not been resolved. No answer to the West Lothian question had been found, only vague suggestions that a federal system might be imposed on the whole of the United Kingdom, or suggestions that it would not matter because it had not mattered that the Stormont MPs voted on the domestic legislation of the rest of the United Kingdom. There was a general atmosphere of "if you don't look at the nasty bogey man he will go away".
The future of the Secretary of State for Scotland was also unresolved. The question of how the new parliament was to be paid for was unanswered, as was the question of how Scotland would manage if the equalisation grant under the Barnett formula were to be discontinued and £7 billion to £8 billion a year had either to be found elsewhere or government expenditure drastically curtailed. And why was social security not to be devolved?
Those are just some of the questions that I asked. I received no answers to them then and I still have no answers to them.
The week before last, the constitution unit published its report on the Scottish constitutional convention's proposals. It too has highlighted the problems posed by the West Lothian question, to which it sees no immediate answer—because, of course, there is not one—the federal solution, its favourite, being in the future, if not in Never-never Land. It does not consider that the equalisation grant under the Barnett formula can continue, but makes a constructive suggestion for an independent commission to conduct a periodic needs assessment. Since no such commission yet exists, it is impossible to foretell the level of need it would agree for Scotland and how it would compare with the present grant.
It goes on to say—this amused me somewhat—that the Scottish parliament will need the capacity to borrow money "for revenue smoothing purposes". I have never before heard that euphemism for having an overdraft because one is short of cash. It is dubious about the 1525 long-term future of the Secretary of State for Scotland and raises other questions, although it is of the view that the devolution proposals are not unworkable, provided that more careful thought is given to those and other areas.
The demand in Scotland for devolution is very real. I believe that this Government have constantly underestimated it. I should not be opposed to devolution, provided I thought that it had been sufficiently carefully thought out and would work, and that Scotland would not be a poorer country and at loggerheads with the rest of the United Kingdom. What worries me is that unless answers to the really important questions are found, it will not work. I wish I could agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, but I cannot. I detect an "it will be all right on the night" attitude, which terrifies me. If it does not work, the people of Scotland will not say, "We made a mistake; let us go back to being governed by the Westminster Parliament." Instead, they will say, "We made a mistake; we should have opted for independence." And that is what they will do.
I am afraid, pessimistically, that we are now in a "heads you lose and tails you don't win" situation. I am afraid that the Secretary of State's admirable efforts to bring the government of Scotland nearer to the people of Scotland come too late. They should have started in 1979. It is not true to say that the Scottish Grand Committee can do everything that a Scottish parliament could do except levy taxes. A Scottish Bill may have its Second Reading in the Grand Committee, but then it goes to a standing committee which is government weighted and it has its Report stage on the Floor of the House of Commons. I am afraid that if we do nothing, Scotland will go for independence and that if we opt for devolution, eventually Scotland will go for independence. I hope I am wrong. Certainly the devolution option is a gamble. But if you believe that the alternative will be certain disaster, you may consider a gamble to be preferable.
I see only one glimmer of hope. If the Labour Party were to win the next election and the number of Scottish MPs were to remain unchanged or increase, the fact that Scotland was no longer being governed from Westminster by a party it had not elected might reduce the demand for a separate parliament, at any rate in the short term. That would give time for other avenues to be explored, such as devolving more responsibilities to local government or possibly having only one set of Members of Parliament elected who sit at Westminster on Mondays, for example, for financial, defence and foreign affairs and in Edinburgh for the rest of the week for Scottish domestic matters, or some such arrangement. It would give time for more thought.
I turn to this House. First, under the Articles of Union, the Scots Peers had the right to elect 16 of their number to sit in the House of Lords. The other day, a noble Baroness—I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour—asked me whether there are still any Scots Peers. I have to tell her that there are still about 75 in existence, of which I am one. Under the 1963 Peerage Act (Section 4), all were given the right to sit in this House. They were not given UK peerages; they were given the right to sit in this House. The 1526 sections of the Articles of Union which provided for the election of the 16 representative Peers were repealed under Schedule 2 of the 1963 Act.
The Scots Peers cannot, therefore, fall back on the Treaty of Union to defend their right to sit in this House. The pass has been sold, unwisely, I think. Therefore, there is no built in reason why any reformed House of Lords should contain any Scottish Peers at all, except a handful of Life Barons. However, if there is not adequate representation of Scotland in any reformed House, it will be the cause of not unreasonable grievance in Scotland, devolution or no devolution. I am not sure that we should not go back to the representative Peers and Peers' elections. Indeed, as I think the noble Earl, Lord Perth, suggested, we might have them for all categories of hereditary Peers.
I was interested to read an article in The Times today by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in which he floated a similar idea for reducing the number of Conservative hereditary Peers. But there is one thing that I do want to say to your Lordships. The Scots representative Peers served Scotland and this House very well for 256 years, and at considerable cost to themselves until after the Second World War. Allowances did not start until 1946 for travelling expenses and 1957 for other expenses. But I also have to say that it is a constitutional atrocity to dictate that Scottish legislation will not qualify or be eligible for consideration by a second Chamber. That is a blatant disregard for Parliament, our parliamentary system and the wider principles of parliamentary democracy.
Finally, I find it ironic, that just at a time when the importance of heredity is again being recognised, backed by scientific knowledge and developments in the field of genetics and DNA testing, the opposition parties, always, I am afraid, apt to be a little out of date, should be determined to get rid of the hereditary Peers.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, it is several hours—though some may think it is several weeks—since we were treated to a rumbustious piece of political tub-thumping by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. He was good enough to allow me to intervene at one point in his speech to ask why the proposed referenda would not include the votes of the English. As I understood it, his reply was that whether or not Scotland and Wales wished to have devolved government had nothing to do with England. That was elaborated upon by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, who said that there was no suggestion that the proposals for change in the government of Northern Ireland should be submitted to this country's electorate.
Taken together those answers reveal the depth of misunderstanding of the situation which devolution is intended to create. They suggest that these are matters which concern only the two peoples—or nations, if the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, prefers that word—involved and do not affect England. That is an extraordinary contention. If we alter the internal arrangements of what has hitherto been a unitary state, 1527 all participants in it must inevitably be affected by what is done. Various noble Lords gave instances of that in the economic field and others may be adduced.
The logic of the position taken by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, leads inevitably to the claim that what is decisive is the wish of a nation to be independent; that is, to run its own affairs. That is a good argument for Scottish or even Welsh independence. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, criticised the Secretary of State for Scotland for finding himself in cahoots—if that is the right expression—with the Leader of the SNP. But that is correct; they are two honest men. One believes in the United Kingdom and the other believes in an independent Scotland. Those are positions which can be held perfectly well and indeed are logical positions.
On the whole I find tempting, for a variety of reasons—some to do with our domestic politics and the affairs of the other House—the idea of Scottish independence and the disappearance from our television screens (except on rare occasions) of certain all-too-familiar figures. But I am restrained in my enthusiasm for Scottish independence for a different reason. I can best explain it by quoting from a speech made in 1484 by the secretary of James III of Scotland to King Richard III of England and his council meeting in Nottingham. At that time there was a danger of another Anglo-Scottish war. The purpose of the secretary—whose name, interestingly enough, was Whitelaw, which shows how porous the Border has sometimes been—was to dissuade the English from going to war again with Scotland. He said,It is an unnatural thing that war should be fought between us—we who are bound together within a small island in the western sea and who are linked by living in the same climate and in neighbouring lands, sharing similarity of physique, language, appearance, colouring and complexion".Archibald Whitelaw referred to,a small island in the western sea".That is a cardinal concept directly related to much of the agitation from the Charter 88 and other unmentionable sources so admirably explained to us by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe. It is all part of an attempt to dissolve this country into national units and ultimately into regions. They would obviously all be weaker than the United Kingdom is as a political unit and all would therefore be subject more easily to further encroachment by the European institutions at Brussels. In other words—this is borne out by the friendly references to Catalonia, the Basque country and so forth—Europe consists either of nation states which can run their affairs and argue their cases with each other on equal grounds, or we have a series of regions, all of them weak and all looking for handouts to make up for their weaknesses. That would be the ultimate outcome if this country pursued the proposals for devolution.
There is no possible ground for saying that it could end in any other way. The purpose of creating the Union—which, after all, took some centuries to build up—was to strengthen both the Scottish and the English. By then England included Wales for political purposes. It was intended to give them greater opportunities, in those days overseas in what became the Empire and 1528 latterly in other walks of life. It makes the United Kingdom, even now in its reduced state in the post-Imperial world, still something to be counted upon.
We are constantly reminded in this House by noble Lords on all sides of the grave challenges to our economic position in the rapid globalisation of the economy. That seems to me to be an argument for retaining a unit of considerable size with great human and material capacities rather than dissolving it, gradually or rapidly, into several or many different units.
The idea that there is a demand—at any rate, in England—for creating regional government, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, is almost as far-fetched as the belief of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, that a British citizen is less likely to have his freedom defended against the state than the citizens of other European countries who happen to enjoy the protection of a written list of their rights. If one believes that, one will believe anything; one could even believe that there is a demand in England for regional government.
I have sat with the noble Lords, Lord Plant and Lord Prys-Davies, in our committee on central and local government. There is certainly a feeling that local government, in the strict sense—for instance, great cities—should have greater control over its affairs. But that is within the framework of a United Kingdom. It is that framework which I believe it is our duty to preserve. For that reason I hope that we may, even at this late hour, hear that the Labour Party has abandoned any proposals to change the status quo.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Viscount Thurso
My Lords, it is always a daunting prospect to follow the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. I have the greatest admiration for his oratory and respect for his intellect, but on this occasion I have to say that I disagree profoundly with the argument that he has expressed.
In this debate tonight I have been struck so far by two points. The first is how little has been said on the general question of Europe and of our future within the European Union. I would like to touch briefly on that a little later on. The second point is that this debate has for me clearly emphasised the difference of opinion and of style between architects and lawyers. It is said of architects that God is in the detail. The architect draws up a great plan and then, with relish, sits down to detail it and to bring this thing of beauty into being. Of the lawyer it is said that the devil is in the detail and having put together the great design the lawyer, with anguish, sits down to pick it apart. Tonight I am firmly on the side of the architect and I wish to speak in support of devolution.
Although I support the sentiments of devolution I hate the word. I much prefer the term "home rule" which I believe is greatly more expressive of what I would like to see in Scotland. Therefore, with your Lordships' leave, I shall use that term. It is a testament to the strength of feeling in the country shown in the number of noble Lords taking part in the debate today both on the Motion today and tomorrow.
1529 It is worth while for a moment to dwell on why there is such strength of feeling both in your Lordships' House and in the country. I believe that that strength of feeling comes from two interlinked sources: first, that our systems of government at all levels are perceived by the people to be failing. The majority of people in the country, if the discussions that I have had are anything to go by, seem to be largely apathetic towards all forms of government, both local and national, and have the feeling that they have little or no say in how they are governed. In short, the average person regards the process of government at all levels as failing to take account of their views and aspirations.
That in turn leads to the second source, which is frustration. In many ways modern life is deeply frustrating. It is frustrating at the most mundane levels. But more importantly for tonight's debate, it is frustrating in that most citizens feel less and less able to participate, which has fostered a growing feeling of them and us—them who govern and us who suffer.
Participation, whether real or perceived, is an essential ingredient in a successful democratic process. It must therefore be a primary requirement of our constitution that it permits the people to feel that they can participate. I remind your Lordships of the debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf on his excellent report on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion in a free society, which to my mind made abundantly clear the grave dangers of excluding members of our society from participation and for the need for participation by all members of the community. In that debate I said two things: first, the smaller the electorate the greater the democracy and, secondly, that local government should be based on community and not on population or land mass.
To my mind it is no accident that the rise in nationalism in Scotland and in other parts of the kingdom directly reflect the reduction in the powers of local government. The great centralising force which the Government have wielded without mercy over the past 17 years has done more than anything else to concentrate the minds of Scotsmen and Scotswomen on the dictatorship of Westminster. My first plea therefore—I join very much with the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, in this—is for local government to give power back to local people in local communities so that they may make local choices.
Before turning fully to the question of home rule I would like briefly to touch on Europe. The full participation of the United Kingdom in the European Union is a central necessity for the future prosperity of our country. I deplore the rise in English nationalism, which is being promoted by some, particularly in the press, as a result of the debate on the single currency. Personally, the single currency worries me greatly. I believe that it has considerable defects. However, I also believe that it will happen. The core countries will go ahead and form it. If we are not part of that core we shall once again be out in the cold hanging on to the coat tails of our more prosperous partners. For that reason and that reason alone, I support our participation in full from the outset. If it then fails we shall be on the 1530 inside and can take part in the decisions to remedy it. If we do not take part we shall be on the outside and not part of the process. Better by far to try and fail than to fail to try.
I now turn to the question of home rule. Perhaps I may quote two paragraphs from a speech made by a former Secretary of State for Scotland shortly after he resigned that office. First, he said,There is a demand growing insistently from the Scottish people that they should be given the right which they believe is theirs inalienably to control their own domestic affairs".Shortly afterwards, in the same speech, he said,Scotsmen feel the need of a political and administrative centre in Scotland which will act as a counter magnet to the attraction of London, as a power house of Scottish energy directed by Scotsmen familiar with Scottish conditions to the solution of Scottish problems for the regeneration of their native land".Those quotations came from a speech made in 1932 at a time when the Prime Minister of the day was committed to the policy of home rule. It was made by Sir Archibald Sinclair, my grandfather. He went on to describe the nationalists, asthe Playboys of Scottish politics, as visionary, unpractical and irresponsible as they are romantic, attractive and fervent in their patriotism".But he warned even then that if the aspirations of the Scottish people were not taken into account then the rise of extreme Scottish nationalism was inevitable. How prophetic he was!
As my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead so eloquently said, there is a precedent for this question and a number of other noble Lords have touched on it: it is Ireland. Without doubt if we had had the foresight in the 1880s and 1890s to allow home rule in Ireland we would today be the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
I believe that the vast majority of Scotsmen have absolutely no wish to challenge the sovereignty of this Parliament or to seek the dissolution of the United Kingdom. But we are different. We are a different people; we have our own heritage and national identity rooted in centuries of independence. We have our own legal system, our own education system and our own sense of priorities. Scotsmen demand the right on these domestic issues to self-determination in domestic government. I firmly believe, although I pray that it will never happen, that if we at Westminster continue to frustrate those legitimate desires, then the forces of nationalism will build to such a pitch that revolution rather than evolution will become the inevitable course. I believe that the case and the momentum for home rule to be so overwhelming that it is a matter of when and not if.
The Scottish Constitutional Convention produced a remarkable report and recommendation. It is remarkable because it is consensual. In many senses it is the best of compromises in that it embraces as wide a diversity of opinion as is possible. For that reason I support it. There are elements of its proposals with which I do not agree, but those disagreements are subordinate to the requirement to achieve something and to achieve the aspirations of Scotsmen and women. If this is the vehicle that achieves it, then I support it.
1531 Without doubt, when the Scottish parliament or assembly comes into existence it will have faults. Those faults will need to be rectified. If it follows the example of this Parliament, it will evolve and refine itself. I would rather work from within to achieve what I believe to be right than to be left out in the cold over a few points of disagreement. The only real argument against a Scottish parliament is the Secretary of State's charge of the tartan tax. It is a shame, but none the less typical, that this Government cannot see the value for considerations of cost. I believe that the answer from most Scotsmen is that if domestic self-determination has a price they will pay it.
The noble Lord, Lord Nickson, raised some very valid concerns. Those who support the Scottish parliament would do well to take note of them. I believe that they will be taken into consideration. If one looks at other regions of Europe where devolution has taken place successfully, the indications are that businesses flourish and do not decline.
We should give consideration to what we require of our constitution and what we want it to do for us. Our constitution should provide an adequate vehicle for the expression of the people so that all citizens can truly feel that they are participants in the democratic process. The constitution must preserve those rights of citizens that we deem inalienable. There are those who say that our constitution is etched in tablets of stone and cannot be changed. This is untrue. History teaches us that it evolves. Sometimes that evolution is gradual, but there are times when the forces opposing constitutional change are such that great force has to build up before change occurs. It is on those occasions that we come dangerously close to revolution. I believe that one of those times is now. If we do not allow this process of evolution to take place we will have revolution.
Of all the evils that beset our world today rampant nationalism is at the top of the list. I abhor anything that promotes nationalism and support anything that promotes internationalism—hence my support for Europe. I firmly believe that home rule for Scotland will lance the nationalist boil and promote harmony and union within the United Kingdom. This great Parliament has been described as the mother of Parliaments. Mothers give birth. Let this great Parliament give birth to a child in Scotland. It will be as all children— ill-disciplined, gawky and awkward—but as it grows to adulthood it will become a worthy child, dutiful, respectful and honorary.
In the words of the English bard,There is a tide in the affairs of men,Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune".Or, as the Scottish bard puts it, possibly more subtly,Now's the day, and now's the hour".
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Swynnerton
My Lords, the idea of home rule for Scotland and Wales is a very old friend who has been away for 20 years. That friend has returned, still lively but perhaps grey at the temples, and is just as unpredictable and capable, as in the past, of creating havoc, particularly for his sponsors.
1532 Having listened to the speeches of noble Lords opposite, and having thought a good deal about the proposals of the party opposite, I am surprised that they have not been a little more ambitious. However one views the matter, it is hard to believe that home rule in one or two parts of a nation state can work. It was because of that that Mr. Balfour, Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Lloyd George, seeing the consequences of Irish nationalism, as we now see Scottish nationalism, began to support—too late—the idea of "Home Rule All Round", thereby hoping to avoid the tragedy, as they rightly saw it, of Irish independence.
Like the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, I prefer the expression "home rule" to "devolution". "Home rule" conjures up particular memories, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, reminded us earlier today. There have certainly been occasions when home rule has been tried in a single part of a country. One obvious example is Stormont. Other examples are Grattan's Parliament in Ireland, Greenland, and Catalonia, at the time of the Second Spanish Republic in the 1930s. But none of those examples is very reassuring. As to Catalonia, although surprisingly it was quite successful at that time, that success has not been reproduced in contemporary Spanish politics, because since Spain became free again, following the death of Franco in 1975 "Home Rule All Round" has been introduced.
If the party opposite were more logical it would be more vigorous in trying to persuade others of the benefit of something like "Home Rule All Round" in the United Kingdom. I do not believe that this would be completely unacceptable on this side of the House. My noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone in his fine book The Dilemma of Democracy in 1978 gave support to the idea of a British federal state. I believe that others of us would support that idea, despite the criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness.
The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, about the liveliness of English regional government were convincing. All the same, it is worth emphasising that this is a very big development. I could quite easily make a speech in favour of a British federal structure. I would tend to neglect the failure of federal states such as those in central Africa and the West Indies, and recall that this country has given its support to several federal enterprises which have been successful. Among them are Australia, Canada, the United States—that had something to do with us—and Germany since the war.
However, there is one qualification which needs to be stated, which the party opposite should perhaps have taken into account when formulating its original ideas. It is that a British federal state could hardly function without having a written constitution, to which so many of us are so bitterly opposed. A written constitution too would have certain benefits. Again, it is easy to defend that. But that would certainly be the logical consequence of a proposal for a federal state, which is the only fair conclusion one can envisage as likely to work, of the introduction of home rule in Scotland and Wales.
I shall turn briefly, in the context of the idea of revising the constitution, to the subject which will be discussed tomorrow by your Lordships; that is to say, 1533 the future of your Lordships' House. The usual way that matter is discussed is to talk about who should be Members. But given the interesting speeches made today about the desirability of a bicameral constitution, and the remarkable adjective used by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who talked of the need for an "enhanced" role for your Lordships' House, perhaps we should wonder whether the powers of the House should not be re-examined.
Are your Lordships entirely satisfied that the powers which you now possess are suitable in the long term? If we are thinking in the long term, should we not envisage a bicameral constitution in which the two Chambers are, if not equal, at least a little more equal than they currently are? Is it possible—perhaps it is out of order—for me to suggest that we could consider some ways whereby there could be some zones of political life (such as finance in another place), for example constitutional matters or scrutiny of European legislation, which should be the prime responsibility of your Lordships' House? Would it be possible to improve on the existing understanding whereby, under the Salisbury Convention, this House does not destroy a Bill which has been approved, by implication, by the country at large in a general election? Could we perhaps suggest that if a Bill which has not been approved of by the country at large in a general election is introduced into another place, this House would be free, under normal circumstances, if there were a majority to do so, to destroy it?
If we think in terms of an enhanced role—again I use the adjective of the noble Lord, Lord Lester—for your Lordships' House, we could consider anew who should be the Members of it. The party opposite is not of course the first party to speak of this, but the position of the hereditary peerage has changed a great deal since the last century when it could be said that it represented the landed interest. All the same, the proposals of the party opposite, which would leave your Lordships' House filled only with nominees of successive Prime Ministers, seem to many of us a little bleak, unimaginative, ugly. Perhaps something else could be devised.
It might be more in the spirit of British constitutional change were there to be some modification of the idea, apparently proposed by Lord Lansdowne earlier this century, whereby a limited number of hereditary peers, perhaps selected by the same method as Scottish peers used to be selected, should continue to be Members of your Lordship's House for a trial period of, perhaps, 25 years. Possibly that should be 75 peers rather than 150.
We should also consider some elected element alongside, not instead of, the existing system. An elected element played a part in the ideas of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and others 25 years ago. How those new noble Lords are to be elected is a matter for much discussion. I believe that it might be desirable to emphasise the regional basis of such elected Members of your Lordships' House. In another place we had county members and so why should we not contemplate having county peers? Some 20 years ago my noble and 1534 learned friend Lord Hailsham suggested that automatically some general secretaries of trade unions and heads of government departments should by the nature of their appointments become Members of your Lordships' House. That idea was dismissed as being "corporatist". Perhaps it could be reconsidered alongside another suggestion whereby serving heads of government departments or serving senior officers in the Armed Forces should become Members. Remembering that revival is the essence of renewal, perhaps I may point out that during the golden age of British democracy in the 18th century, most great commanders were Members of another place.
In the context of the revision of this House, the number of Protestant Lords Spiritual might be reduced and replaced by Catholics. I am sure that many Members of your Lordships' House would consider that idea with interest.
I do not believe that the ideas for change proposed by the party opposite are to be condemned absolutely. However, in relation to home rule for Scotland and Wales, perhaps it should think more profoundly about the implications of its proposals. I also believe that any scheme for change in your Lordships' House should be more imaginative. I do not believe that change itself should be opposed. Indeed, I strongly believe that Cardinal Newman was correct when he said that "to change is to grow".
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Baroness Lockwood
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in his opening remarks traced some of the developments in our constitution and referred to its largely unwritten nature. Indeed, other noble Lords have done so. Nevertheless, the most important changes which have taken place in our constitution have been brought about by changes in statute. They have been deliberate changes based on legislation. It is that kind of change that we are discussing today. However, those changes are not intended to cut across the consensus in the House as a whole that the United Kingdom should not in any way be diminished.
From the Magna Carta onwards there has been a perpetual struggle about where real power should reside. Throughout the centuries power has passed from the Monarch to Parliament, from Lords to Commons and from Parliament to the executive. Now the question is: how can it be devolved and shared more with the people? I believe that some of the most important changes began with the Reform Act 1832, culminating in the universal franchise of 1918 and 1928. During that 100 years the basis of our democracy was set. The right to vote was based on citizenship, not on wealth or privilege.
A central feature of the 1918/1928 reforms was that women were given equal political rights with men. Perhaps that process was finalised by the Life Peerages Act 1958, which introduced Life Peers and brought women into the House of Lords for the first time.
Many of those reforms were by no means easy. Indeed, when it came to giving votes to women, opponents talked of the dire consequences not just for 1535 the constitution but for the whole fabric of our society, instead of which, as we all know, women were able to introduce a more humane and perhaps more civilised element into our parliamentary democracy.
It seems to me that the changes which we are now discussing and the reaction to those changes, particularly the Prime Minister's rather contrived and exaggerated alarm at these proposals, are the modern version of the reaction to every reform which has been brought about where the interests of opponents were to retain the status quo.
If there were ghosts around the Palace of Westminster—and I do not think that there are—one could imagine them wearily saying, "Surely we have been here before".
In the second half of this century perhaps the most important change that has taken place has been our membership of the European Union, and I couple with that the 1975 referendum which confirmed our membership of the Union. That was a process of sharing power with a wider group, sharing power with Europe, our partners in Europe. It was not entirely new because through treaties and other Acts we have before shared power with those beyond our shores.
But another process has been brought about which was in a different direction. There have been changes which have affected our constitution, and those changes have been an acceleration of centralisation of power in the executive. That has come about not by open discussion on the constitution and deliberate changes but as a by-product of government policy on other matters.
Previously there had been some sharing of power and influence by the government of the day, the two Houses of Parliament, local government and other non-governmental organisations. Since 1979, much of that has been diminished. As the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said, local government has lost much of its power and influence. In the great metropolis of London there is no central governmental machinery. It is the only major capital city in Europe without its own locally governed and civic institutions. That surely cannot be right.
Our Civil Service, respected for its independence, has been depleted. Much of it has been transferred to so-called unaccountable next steps agencies and parts of it are threatened with privatisation. The Church too has lost much of its influence. Some of its pronouncements have been rubbished by government and in this House. The universities are subjected to more and more bureaucratic interference and control, as is education in general. The independence of the professions is under attack. The BBC has been subjected to interference from time to time. As for trade unions, they appear to have no status at all with this Government, and the CBI appears not to have much more.
The outcome of all that has been that final policy decisions have come more and more within the control of central government, either by the power of patronage in appointments to the growing number of quangos set up to replace other machinery that had more divers 1536 accountability or through government funding councils established to oversee various bodies; or, indeed, by direct interference of individual Secretaries of State.
That development needs to be halted. We need more open, more diversified and more democratic structures than those that have developed in recent years. The proposals from my party are an attempt to do exactly that. I shall not go into the details of devolution in Scotland and Wales as that has already been adequately addressed. However, I accept the principle of devolution. I also believe that the idea of a referendum as to whether devolution should take place is a democratic and definitive way of getting a response on which legislation can finally be based. When the time comes, although I do not think that it would be in the early days of a Labour Government, I would, like my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, support regional government for the reasons that he outlined.
We have had an important debate today. However, it is one which should be continued throughout the country because we are now discussing some of the vital democratic issues which will affect the whole of the country in the coming millennium.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ Lord Burton
My Lords, today's debate has been long and very diverse. Consequently, as I am sure noble Lords will be relieved to hear, I have managed to dispose of many of my notes. We have heard many interesting speeches and I do not wish to single out any one in particular. However, having listened to my noble friend Lord Nickson, I can only hope that Mr. Blair will read his speech. He would then have an excellent excuse to change his mind once again and drop such proposals altogether.
There was a headline in one of last Sunday's newspapers which stated, "We will not spend more, says Mr. Blair". Therefore, I wonder whether we can look now at what the cost of a Scottish parliament is likely to be. Would it be thousands or millions of pounds and where would that money come from? Would the money come from health, education, police or fire service budgets? Indeed, which budget would pay for such expensive unnecessary bureaucracy, if there is to be no increase in expenditure?
Last week I had to speak on the telephone to a West Coast crofter in order to apologise for being unable to attend a National Farmers' Union meeting which he was organising for today. I cannot tell noble Lords verbatim what he said to me when he heard that we were to debate devolution. In fact, his comments were totally unparliamentary. However, he bitterly complained that we already had far too much interference from public bodies. He cited as an example officials appointed by our new Highland Council who are called "Animal Welfare Officers". They have recently been travelling around the country, calling on crofters and farmers.
Cruelty to animals was, and is, most ably handled by the SSPCA. However, I know from my own office just how much time is wasted in filling in statistics, trying to convince various officials as to what sort of decisions 1537 they should make, and generally trying to protect the countryside from foolish proposals. Recently, our council appointed a "Bicycling Officer" to promote bicycling—and yet the council complains that it cannot afford a proper police force or fire brigade. The crofter was quite correct: we have far too much public interference without having an extra parliament thrust upon us.
Those in the central belt inevitably think that they know what is best for Scotland. To give those people the powers sought would be very dangerous for the Highlands. We want less government, not more. What would these new politicians do? At the moment there are parliamentary representatives and local government representatives. Is it intended that the members of a Scottish parliament should take over half the work of the Westminster representatives, or are they going to take over some of the tasks carried out by the local government representatives, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, said applied to Wales—or might apply to Wales?
That would either leave the current Westminster Members of Parliament short of work, and/or interfere with the newly reorganised local government. Or possibly the new Scottish parliamentarians will be short of something to do, and will seek further ways of interfering with our lives. Our Highland Council already has jurisdiction over one-third of the land area of Scotland, and I cannot see it being at all pleased at the probable interference from Edinburgh.
There has quite rightly been much talk of a "tartan tax", and income tax, but which set of taxes will some of us have to pay? Will the income be based on the place of residence, or the place of work, or where the money has been earned, which may be partly in each country? Will England be treated as a foreign country by the Scottish inspector of taxes, as of course currently there are special arrangements for tax paid in a foreign country? A large proportion of any tax paid will still have to go to the Westminster jurisdiction, but I wonder whether there has been any decision on what proportion of British taxation will be paid to Scotland or Wales?
It is surely not surprising that the Labour Party now seeks a referendum. It looks as if someone has suddenly woken up to the chaos which will ensue. Whatever the result of a referendum, the Labour Party will not have to take the blame when things go wrong. No doubt some of those showing annoyance at the proposal to hold a referendum are clearly anxious about the result. For what it is worth, I have been told that a poll taken by the Sun newspaper last week rejected the devolution proposals. The Sun is not part of my usual reading and therefore I cannot confirm that.
One only hopes that, although there are some noisy fanatics who seem to want a "Bosnia-type" situation for Britain, there are likely to be sufficient numbers of votes to reject the disintegration of our country. I was interested to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, expressed doubts as to the result of a referendum. I think he is right. The country will be split down the middle.
1538 There is one further point of concern. For a great many years now we have had a second chamber of government, as indeed of course have many other countries such as America. That is absolutely vital for checking legislation and making sure we take a second look at it to ensure that it is correct. Under the present proposals for a parliament for Scotland, presumably there would be no one to check or revise its legislation. That should be a matter of considerable concern. With the threat of a Scottish parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, said, there is a considerable economic risk. I have seriously considered whether I should not sell my home and properties in the North which have been with my family for 500 years.
§ Lord Burton
My Lords, I might spend more time here if I moved. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred to a document which stated that the time was not right for devolution. I believe he was quoting the Prime Minister but I am not sure of that. The time will never be right for breaking up this great country of Britain.
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ Lord Bancroft
My Lords, we have had some notable speeches today, especially the four openers. We have also been reminded that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, enlightened us this morning from the Isle of Dogs. I warn noble Lords that my approach is that of the mechanic rather than the philosopher.
I begin with a truly crunching cliché. Even the poached eye of an aged buffer can see that there is no such thing as the status quo. You either go forward or you go back. People and events will see to that. So constitutional change of some kind is inevitable. My thesis is that it should be organic change planned at a digestible rate. It should seek, if at all possible, to carry the broad consent of the majority of our citizens and main party agreement.
Whichever party, or combination of parties, wins the next general election, there will be constitutional change of some sort—depending on the result, either the minimum or the maximum. I wish to comment on the latter, however remote it may appear to some of us, largely on the mechanics, though touching lightly on the merits.
The agenda is formidable. It demands the lifetime of at least two Parliaments. As we have been reminded, the main items are the return of powers to local government, a strategic elected authority for London, devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some English regions, reform of the powers and composition of the House of Commons, including possibly the method of election to it, reform of the powers and composition of this House, human rights legislation and freedom of information legislation; and all that in the context of an enlarging and changing European Community. It is a vast programme. If it does not frighten its supporters, by God it frightens me.
1539 As a career non-politician, I hesitate to proffer stale buns to the experienced members of that admirable profession who adorn this House. Even less would I dare to instruct my metaphorical grandmothers in the tricks of sucking eggs. But I suggest that constitutional reform is the greatest absorbent of parliamentary time known to man. So if a government were to be brave or, in my view, foolhardy enough to attempt the long agenda, they must adopt an orderly approach to the interlocking items. They should early on cost out their priority items in parliamentary time. Unlike Prufrock, they should measure out their life not with coffee spoons but in parliamentary days. They should draft out at least their first two Queen's Speeches now and count up the cost in parliamentary days.
Let us remember that the time-eating constitutional Bills will have to compete for parliamentary time with programme Bills, some bread and butter, and many others far sexier politically—health, education, law and order, transport and the environment. One lesson I have learnt over the years is that constitutional Bills tend to appeal to academic party zealots, to many Scotsmen and Irishmen, but to relatively few other voters. I say fearfully to my noble friend Lord Elis-Thomas, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and others that I am only half Welsh.
In that light I put forward three propositions. One is to set up a strong Royal Commission on the constitution. It would be designed to last for the lifetime of at least two Parliaments. It would be charged with making recommendations which would be enacted serially, as they were formulated, debated and approved. That would secure the genuine benefits of incremental and mutually informed change. It might also winnow out the chaff. There is a lot of it about. For particular items, consideration by the Royal Commission might be preceded by meetings of party leaders, as suggested by the admirable Constitution Unit, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe.
The second proposition is that some parts of constitutional Bills must be taken off the Floor of the other place. Historically, that has been their abattoir. There would also need to be organisational changes in Whitehall.
The third proposition is that everyone concerned with constitution-making should marinade themselves for some weeks, if not months, in the excellent reports of the Constitution Unit, those already published and those still to come.
I end by selecting for brief comment three items on the long agenda. I hope that I am not straying too far into tomorrow's pastures, but the dividing hedgerow is rather straggly. I strongly believe that any reforms must take as early items: first, the return of powers to local authorities; and, secondly, a strategic elected authority for London. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, on that.
My third item is the reform of the powers and composition of our own Chamber. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and others said, its composition is intellectually indefensible. Its necessary reform, politics apart, is the thinnish icing on the top of 1540 a substantial cake. There are strong arguments for dealing with powers before dealing with composition and for not proceeding, as proposed by the Labour Party, in two stages. To take the latter course would, on every shred of historical evidence, leave the second Chamber as an appointed House—some might call it a House of patronage or "jobbery"—for at least a generation, perhaps more. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, made that point.
I conclude by saying that for a lifetime I have had a detached love-hate relationship with all three parties. I think I can see how politically beguiling it is to go straight for the jugular and abolish the hereditary principle in this place. Having been the first Labour Leader in history to rewrite his own party's constitution—and having lost friends on the Left in the process—it must be tempting for Mr. Blair to follow his instincts and, coincidentally, re-establish his credibility with the Left by rewriting the country's constitution and banishing hereditary peers from this place at one go early on. But this cheerful, perhaps even engaging brutality is not the right way to achieve stable and robust constitutional reform. Consensus building and suppleness, and perhaps a degree of desirable elegance, are also needed. I genuinely hope that in the end more soundly based second-thoughts will command the field.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Our constitution is unique. It has been the foundation upon which we have prospered and grown as a nation over many hundreds of years. It has evolved with the instincts of the British people, and it has served us well. Arguably, in these times of general uncertainty and increasing global competition, we need the certainty and political stability that it provides just as much as ever. However, the very constitutional arrangements that have served us so well are threatened with great upheaval by the radical plans for constitutional change proposed by the parties opposite.
I want to follow the argument of my noble friends Lord Dean of Harptree and Lord Bowness. I want to address briefly the one aspect of the constitutional debate which I fear could have a particularly detrimental effect on the government of England; that is, the proposals to establish regional government in England.
At the heart of any regional policy or strategy there must be a respect for the diversity of communities. It is a fact that in our counties and shires, and in our towns and cities, there exists broad diversity of both an economic and a social nature. The policy of this Government is founded on a respect for that diversity. We have encouraged diversity in many areas. Take, for example, the reorganisation of local government, which involved wide-scale public consultation, to ensure that local authorities reflect the wishes of local people more effectively; and take education, where a great deal of power has been decentralised to schools and parents.
The Labour Party's plans for regional government stand in stark contrast to ours. It intends to impose a system of regional government on the 10 administrative 1541 regions of England. Each region would have to establish a regional chamber composed of nominated councillors. Those regions in which there was a popular demand would be able to elevate their regional chambers into fully elected regional assemblies. As a result, England could find itself divided up into regional units in the same way as many European countries are. It would be an England of regions in a Europe of regions—and would have, as a direct result, weaker and more fragmented government.
The move to regional government would be a costly exercise first and foremost. The initial establishment of regional chambers would involve considerable start-up costs. There would be the need for offices and administrative staff, for researchers and secretaries. Councillors would require expenses, and members of a regional assembly would require salaries.
However, Labour's expensive regional chambers and authorities are based on the desire and perceived need to build and develop regional interests and identities which just do not exist. People from Surrey, Sussex or Kent do not call themselves "South Easterners", just as people from Cumbria or Manchester do not describe themselves as "North Westerners"—and nor will they. Indeed, why should people living in Cumbria have to look to a regional chamber or assembly based in either Manchester or Liverpool to govern their affairs and hatch up grand regional economic projects for them when their needs may be completely different from those in other parts of the administrative region?
Labour' s unelected regional chambers would be given considerable powers. In each one of the 10 regions the regional chambers to be created would have the power to,co-ordinate economic development strategy and help to establish regional development agencies",whether the people living in the counties, cities and towns of that region liked it or not. Business would find itself entangled by yet another layer of government and bureaucracy. Is this the way to go about regenerating deprived areas of the country? I believe it is not.
The establishment of regional chambers and possibly regional assemblies poses an even greater danger to the very cohesion of England itself. I would like the House to imagine one possible scenario. Let us imagine that the West Midlands votes in a referendum to convert its regional chamber into a full regional assembly, while the East Midlands, on the other hand, decides not to. Although Labour has not stated exactly and explicitly what powers a regional assembly might have, let us say that it takes responsibility for education, health and transport matters in its region. The new West Midlands regional assembly would therefore be responsible for all education, health and transport policy in the West Midlands. In the East Midlands, however, education, health and transport policy would still be decided at Westminster.
If such a scenario were to arise—and it is perfectly possible under Labour's proposals—would MPs from the West Midlands still be allowed to legislate on education, health and transport matters for people of the 1542 East Midlands? If they were still allowed to do so, would this be a fair settlement? Would it not generate resentment in the East Midlands? Would we find region pitted against region? Is this not an English version of the as yet still unanswered West Lothian question posed all those years ago by Tam Dalyell in another place? Perhaps we could call it the West Midlands question.
Unless these questions are answered, regional government for England would be a disaster and would be a real threat to the continuation of our living and evolving constitution.
§ 9.53 p.m.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, my capacity for amazement is unexcelled. I have been in this House for 18 years and I am always amazed by what I hear. I did not know that the Labour Party had such a policy for the regions, but I am very pleased to hear about it if that indeed is so. One of the things that struck me about what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, to whom I give my wannest greetings, is this: has she never heard of how the men of Kent and the Kentish men throw bottles at each other whenever they can? There are regional difficulties even in England. It is a fact. I do not want to pursue that because there are no proposals for regional government in England unless the English want it. If they want it, they can have it; it is none of my business to interfere with the English. If they want it they can have it; if they do not want it they need not have it. As I said, my capacity for astonishment is unexcelled.
I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, claim that he is not a politician. It so happens that I have sat with him on Sub-committee B of the European Communities Select Committee for the last six months or so, and it may be taken from me that he is a politician from the top of his head to the bottom of his toes, as can be seen from the comments that he made. Many of his comments I agree with entirely, with only one reservation: they are far too late. If his proposals had been followed some time ago and we had had this Royal Commission and so on in the 1980s or earlier on, everything would be hunky-dory; but we have not had it. It is far too late and things have gone too far. We cannot now say: "Let us now have another Royal Commission and wait for two or three years and all will be well." I am sorry to disagree with such a distinguished fellow member of the Select Committee, but he happens to be mistaken. He is actually wrong.
I have to apologise to the House for two reasons: first, my speech has already been made at least twice. It may have been made more than twice; I had to leave for an important meeting downstairs. I managed the first course and had most of the second course, but I had to leave the pudding, so the speech may have been made yet again in my absence. I shall pursue my speech regardless of how often it has been made, if only to show how widespread agreement is on this side of the House and, indeed, perhaps on other sides of the House as well.
I gather that reference has already been made to a notable article in today's Times by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. I do not want to deal with his 1543 arguments because they dealt mainly with tomorrow's business which is the reform of our House. I daresay that is important but it is not our business today. He gave two quotations which I thought were of great significance. He said that reform should be based on precedent. He then referred to Burke, who seems to carry a great deal of weight on the other side of the House, and to Burke's grounds of tradition, convenience and expediency. The two words "convenience" and "expediency" are extremely important in a debate of this kind because they deal with the realities of politics rather than the certainties of philosophy.
Perhaps I may now refer to the speech of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. Unusually for me, I do it with a certain element of criticism because the noble and learned Lord knows that I have great regard for him. Quite apart from being a lawyer, he is a Scotsman and therefore valuable. He seemed to speak, in his very interesting address today, as though devolution was something new, something which had not happened before. But others have drawn our attention to the Northern Ireland experience. It has not been wholly happy, we admit, but in constitutional terms the Northern Ireland experience was an example of devolution. In so far as it failed, it failed because of those who were running it; not because of the structure and not because of its devolutionary nature. The Northern Ireland experience is a model. It may not be the best model but it is the one we have, and it is a model on which we can build, reflect, criticise, examine and improve. But I say to the noble and learned Lord that it did exist and, although he left it out from his address earlier, I am quite sure that he has heard of it. That experience lasted for 50 years or so, which is quite a time. As a constitutional experience it was sound.
It has specific relevance to what is referred to as the West Lothian question. It has been said before, most eloquently by my noble friend Lord Ewing, and my noble friend Lord Sewel, who said it in almost exactly my own words. He is a university professor and is not a fool.
I remember my days in another place in the 1960s when I had a very agreeable acquaintance called Stratton Mills. Many noble Lords may remember him. He was a very agreeable young man, a Northern Ireland solicitor and Ulster Unionist. He sat for Belfast North. Stratton used to come into the other place and go on about English matters, Scottish matters and matters throughout the entire globe or indeed the universe—although I cannot remember him going so far as that. Stratton Mills was able to expand on all those things whereas I, his close acquaintance and friend, was unable to utter a squeak on Northern Ireland. Not one sound could I utter on Northern Ireland, although I was fairly interested in it.
Nobody ever said, "What about the Belfast North question?" The Belfast North question did not exist. It did not exist because Stratton Mills, a nice young man, as he was, and misguided, as I daresay he was, was on the government side at the time and a Conservative, although sitting as a Unionist. The only change is that West Lothian and West Belfast are slightly different.
1544 Tam Dalyell is my oldest political friend apart from my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees. We go back a long way, I am afraid to say. Tam's virtues leaned towards eccentricity—they did not reach eccentricity; they leaned towards it and this is one of his most eccentric activities. The West Lothian question is a figment in terms of Burke's grounds of tradition—the Northern Irish tradition—convenience, which is a Northern Irish convenience and Burke's expediency, which is the Northern Irish expediency. If it is good enough for the Northern Irish, who are excellent people, it must be good enough for the Scots—most of the Northern Irish are Scots anyway, or a good many of them are.
I do not want to go on about the tartan tax. I wonder what it was called when the Conservatives wanted it. Anyway, it is little different from the kind of tax which the third tier of government applied—for example, the GLC when it existed. I do not want to draw too much attention to the GLC; I use it as an example. I say to my Front Bench that it would be a good idea if, instead of talking about three pence on or off our income tax, they forgot all about that because that irritates people. People are funny about income tax. They want to pay taxes, but not income tax. Why do we not make it a precept upon the rates in the same way as the GLC and the county councils precepted upon the rates? People would pay that happily because they enjoy paying the rates, though they do not enjoy paying income tax.
I want to conclude by making just one more point. I could say a great deal more but I will confine myself to the referendum. I welcome it. It was a mistake to have left out the idea of a referendum. When I spoke on the Maastricht Treaty some years ago I was in favour of a referendum—not on the currency matters, which are not constitutional, but on the treaty itself. I believe in referendums as a good thing in themselves.
One point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, whom I am happy to see in his place. He was defending himself as a Secretary of State for Scotland. He was one of the best we have ever had. Apart from the fact that he belonged to the wrong party, I wish his reign had lasted longer than it did. He raised a question which I raised in this House 18 years ago when I was a new Member and we were discussing the referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, worried about the fact that Scotsmen who were not resident in Scotland would be debarred from voting. That worried me also at that time. He may remember—though I have no reason to suppose that he would—that I raised the matter in the following terms.
I pointed out that the referendum was coming up and my daughter Annabel was a student in Edinburgh. My niece, Kirsty, was a student at the same college. Annabel was born in London, though her antecedents are wholly Scottish; she is pure. My niece Kirsty was actually born in Johannesburg and her mother is English. I hesitate to say that she is impure; I do not want to say that she is tainted; but she is not the real thing. I questioned the government closely. I asked why Annabel, who was born in London and raised in Edinburgh, can vote in the referendum and Kirsty—lovely girl that she is and my brother's proudest possession, apart from his wife—can also vote in the referendum whereas I, so Scots that 1545 I can barely be seen for shortbread, have no vote in the referendum. That is not right. I am not claiming that we should have Scotsmen throughout the world voting in the referendum, but a little thought should be given to the position of we exiles. We are economic refugees.
The unicameral nature of my party's proposal is mistaken. There should be some way in which this House can deal with whatever legislation comes from the Scottish parliament which I very much hope to see. It may be that the House as a whole can deal with it. There may well be some Scottish committee. The matter should be looked at. I applaud my party, which is not something that I always do. I am sure that it has got it right, or nearly right this time. If it listens to this debate and pays careful attention to what has been said, it will get it right in the fullness of time.
§ 10.6 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I think the word that the noble Lord was looking for is "mongrel" in the context of his niece and daughter, but that is another matter.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I shall address my remarks to Wales for two reasons. I am the 13th of 27 noble Lords who remain Members of this House, as opposed to another House, who took part in the Wales Bill of 1978. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, I am a mongrel Welshman, having English, Scots, Irish and, for all I know, lots of other blood about. The important point is that I live, work, farm and derive my living in Wales. I suspect therefore that, as a result, the Chief Whip suggested that I speak in this debate. Of course, any wish or desire of any Chief Whip is always my command. So I suspect that my few remarks will not be much welcomed.
My objections to a Welsh assembly and devolution have not changed since the 1978 Act. That dislike, as your Lordships have been reminded, was supported by 84 per cent. of the Welsh population. Many of my reasons for my horror at a Welsh assembly concern the ability to work and farm efficiently in Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, whose speech I much enjoyed although I did not agree with it, said that my Welshness has left me for being so mercenary and so pragmatic. The Welsh are not pragmatic and they are not mercenary.
Inward investment would be discouraged and the outward movement of young Welsh talent would be encouraged. Productive talent always flourishes better in large ponds and Wales has a population of only some 2.8 million, which I believe is smaller than the Birmingham conurbation. Wales is a geographic honor to travel through. It is twice as easy to get from Holyhead to London than from Holyhead to Cardiff. I asked this question of Lord Elwyn-Jones in 1978, but he could not give me an answer.
The grants of the United Kingdom Government to Wales are far larger per head than to England. In fact, we are subsidised by the English. I am delighted by that. I love subsidies: I live on them. But does anyone believe that the English will go on being so stupid as to tolerate 1546 that when Wales has devolved? All these facts will result in economic decline. Although I accept that some in Wales will believe that such decline should be accepted for the sake of an assembly, I say very seriously that it will lead to many problems, particularly social and racial and, despite what is being said, the eventual break up of the United Kingdom.
Like my noble friend Lord Nickson, I accept that there may be a similar distrust of the English in Wales. I believe that that has arisen because the Labour Party has listened to a vocal minority, and perhaps because of the historical suspicion of the English absentee landlord. My family could be accused of exploiting the Welsh, having married a very beautiful and rich Miss Owen two-and-a-half centuries ago—a century earlier than the time when the miners of Lord Elis-Thomas were having problems in the south of Wales. They then made themselves unpopular by enclosing land, but it was of long-term benefit to efficient farming. Surely, Miss Owen must bear some responsibility for being so unwise as to marry an English mongrel. All of that is history, and I thought that the Labour Party had no time for history.
Any assembly will cost money. It will be given powers. Quite what those powers will be we know not, but we can be sure that, having been given some, it will want more. These costs and powers will be a further cross to be borne by industry, farming and the people of Wales. The assembly will want planning powers, status and the ability to raise money. Heaven knows what else it will want. But, to be sure, when two or three councillors are gathered together they will want to interfere in my life and the lives of everybody else. It will cause great uncertainty.
I conclude by being a little more radical than the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. I suggest to your Lordships that the great majority of ordinary people have little time for Members of Parliament, including your Lordships and me in particular. They have even less time for councillors. Why in the name of heaven does anyone believe that there is a need for another set chattering away in Cardiff?
§ 10.12 p.m.
§ Lord Sempill
My Lords, my throat, the 36 previous speakers and the midnight sleeper will keep my contribution very brief. One of the reasons why I was keen to speak in this debate was my family's link to the question. In 1707 the then tenth Lord Sempill voted against the Union and everything that it stood for.
§ Lord Sempill
My Lords, perhaps I should sit down now! His reason for being so vehemently against the Union was that he could see that his powers and influence over his countrymen would be seriously diminished. At that stage he retired to the country. I speak from a slightly more humble position, albeit I feel that there are certain similarities in the situation.
My contribution will add another note of caution. Like many other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon, I believe that devolution will be the first step 1547 towards Scottish independence. I have no reason to believe that the welfare of the Scots would improve immeasurably outside the Union. I believe that what we all seek is greater economic prosperity, not more government. Therefore, I have serious reservations as to whether a devolved assembly with tax-raising powers can achieve this. This concern has been echoed by various business leaders in Scotland and clearly iterated by the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, whose contribution was of immense value to this debate.
I make brief mention of the nationalists, whom I believe to be the fear factor that has been mentioned in some of the speeches today. Their cause has been given a substantial boost by a film—a film that many of us have seen—called "Braveheart". Combine that raw emotion and the rhetoric of devolution and one creates a recipe for independence. It is therefore imperative that the proposal to decentralise power is debated with a full and clear understanding of the downsides of devolution. Is it not, for instance, feasible that more power could be devolved to our local government, which already has fiscal responsibility in running our towns and cities?
Surely with modern technology and speed of communication we should be evolving government to have fewer politicians and not more. Could not our current MPs and local councillors convene at different times of the year to discuss issues pertinent to the affairs of Scotland? I, like my noble friend Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, sense that we have missed the boat, and that the mood for independence is real. Is it possible, though, to reverse that trend? I am not certain.
To do so, we need to re-establish the value of the Union, and to preach the benefits of belonging to the Union. That is not, I may add, dissimilar to the efforts being made by the pro-Europeans. To date, the Union has been a tremendous commercial success. It has been responsible for forging a powerful British identity which allows us to command substantial—many would say, disproportionate—influence on world affairs. Even the language of international commerce is English.
It is my observation that we have allowed the concept of the Union to become belittled—a point underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks—and to place too much emphasis on national differences which create the more unattractive elements of nationalism. Why, for example, was the highly successful Euro '96 hosted only by England? How long before the British teams representing us in the forthcoming Olympics will be broken down into individual nation states? Is it not obvious to all that we have greater strength as a Union—a Union which I believe has the full support of the House?
§ 10.18 p.m.
§ Lord Hamilton of Dalzell
My Lords, there can be no part of our constitution that has not been the subject of a distinguished speech or two this evening, but I feel that a shadow hangs over the debate. It might be more appropriate to call it Banquo's ghost. It is my belief that we stand at a crossroads in the history of this great nation of ours. It is that we still have to decide whether our relationship with Europe will be federal or one of a union of independent states.
1548 If the decision is that we should become part of a federal Europe, many elements of our constitution will have to be looked at and perhaps changed, but until we have made that big decision, the question of constitutional change is premature.
There is only one aspect of government policy over which the Executive has total control, and that is the policy it adopts towards the currency. The First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have the sovereign duty to set the budget and the rate of interest for sterling. Although there has been a long history since the war when governments have not been very successful in carrying out that task, the people have the sovereign right to vote them out of power at elections. In a democracy, we get the governments that we deserve.
I believe that it is arguable that that is the only area where the Executive is truly sovereign, because although Parliament has a sovereign right to make laws, there is a history, going from the peasants' revolt to the poll tax, when the people have, from time to time, refused to obey the will of their rulers. I take as my prime modern example the defeat of successive attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy as an alternative means of controlling the economy through statute.
Our becoming a de facto member of a federal state could come upon us unawares. The assumption of powers by Europe creeps and should we have the misfortune to have a Labour Government after the next election the pace will dramatically increase.
What guarantee is there that, should a Government decide that the single currency is in the interest of the country and that we should join it in 1999 or after, the people will not be persuaded to vote for it in a referendum? The principal duty of government to safeguard the currency will have been transferred away at a stroke. The overriding financial powers of the Government will be transferred to the European Central Bank, along with the country's gold and foreign exchange reserves, the wealth of the British people.
The control of wage rates, social benefits, pensions, safety at work, and regulations for employment will be transferred to the Commission and the European Parliament under the social chapter. The rate of VAT and what it is charged on, the main source of government revenue, is on the way to becoming standard throughout the Union. What of significance is there left for the elected representatives of the British Parliament to do?
At the start of the debate on the Maastricht Treaty the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, said that there was no constitutional issue in the treaty because when we signed the Treaty of Rome the European Court of Justice became the superior court and that anybody who had read the treaty would be aware of it. That came as a blow to me because I knew then that the debate against the Maastricht Treaty was, for the time being, lost in your Lordships' House.
I believe that we are here today to debate the consequences of that debate which have become much clearer in the intervening period. If there were no 1549 constitutional issues in the acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty there were undoubted constitutional consequences to follow.
We see opposite parties which are determined that we should accept all the federal implications of the treaty. If I had the same ambitions as they have I would agree with them. There is little point in preserving all the trappings of a nation state, with a Parliament of two Chambers, to decide the parochial issues of a country which has lost the control of its own money and the financial policies which govern it. How is it possible to have a national foreign policy if we have to ask our European bankers for the funds to finance it?
I can understand why a Scotsman or a Welshman might fancy the chances of receiving more from the cohesion and convergence funds than he does from the British Government. There is the example of Ireland to persuade him. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, on the subject of European citizenship, explained at some length how he considered himself to be a citizen of Scotland and the European Union but a subject of the United Kingdom. A citizen of the European Union has rights but no duties. In addition to the prospect of subsidy, one of the rights that he has is to look to the European Court of Justice, which is superior to the House of Lords. Is it possible to receive legal rights and money from one master and to owe allegiance to another?
The question we have to ask ourselves is: what do we want Great Britain to be? Do we want it to be a vassal state of Europe or an independent nation state? Until that question has been answered there can be no point in interfering with our present constitution, and we should resist any attempt to do so.
§ 10.23 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, London must indeed be fortunate. It may not have an elected body but it has a Cabinet committee to look after its interests and a Minister appointed to look after it. What greater influence could a city have at the centre of power? The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, told us that all is well with London and that there is no demand for change. Yet, according to London First, an organisation set up to promote London and supported by many of the capital's leading businesses and financial institutions, London is losing out. Despite those wonderful connections at the centre of power, London First is concerned about the lack of a strong and effective voice to champion London's causes and, indeed, to make a case for London with government and abroad. In addition, London First conducted a survey which showed overwhelming support for an elected city-wide authority, so we can expect proposals for an elected French-style mayor or an American-style governor, whose task it will be to promote the interests of the city instead of having a Cabinet Minister.
Why should the city want its own elected champion? As other noble Lords have said, the reason is that people no longer trust central government to be fair and 1550 impartial. They feel alienated and the Cabinet committees operate in secret. People observe the regional inequalities and conclude that they must look after their own interests.
Central government should encourage them to do that because those regional inequalities are a drag on our national competitiveness. The wealth of the nation depends on the prosperity of its constituent parts. The Government recognise that and in last month's competitiveness White Paper it was reported that the underlying levels of manufacturing productivity vary greatly among the regions, as does participation in education and training.
In true centralised style, the Government have told the regions what they should be doing about their shortcomings not through their elected representatives but through the myriad of quangos and central government sponsored organisations such as TECs, Business Links and the DTI local offices.
In Lancashire alone there are something like 64 different economic development organisations all receiving public money. That excludes the local agencies under the umbrella of the TECs. The Regional Policy Commission, under the chairmanship of Bruce Milian, reported that it is not unusual for areas to have more than 40 bodies involved in regional development activities, many of them competing and overlapping.
Perhaps all those regional organisations are a job-creation project in themselves. But the inevitable overlap and duplication must be a terrible waste of money, time and effort. Lack of focus must make it more difficult to plan and because they compete for funding many of those organisations work against each other when in fact they should be co-operating.
For example, the TECs and the FE colleges are both competing for the same training money. Would it not be more effective and efficient for them to co-operate? But, no, the Government create obstacles to co-operation in the name of competition because that is the way that central government keeps control. The resources and effort which go into such unnecessary competition in order to maintain that kind of top-down government are enormous.
As my noble friend Lord Irvine said, that is the frustration of centralisation. It is also disheartening for those involved and I agree with my noble friend Lord Plant that it is a major cause of low morale, part of the feel-bad factor. It is demeaning, too, because it is as though people locally cannot be trusted to get together to agree on what are their priorities.
In business circles, trust is being much discussed at present. Quite simply, if business partners, managers, suppliers, customers and workers can trust each other more, the costs of doing business are lower and things get done more quickly. Such a social infrastructure can only be built up locally and that ethos facilitates investment and progress.
Conversely, the centralisation of power, with a lack of trust offered to regions and cities, weakens the country's civic structure and the economy suffers. As my noble friend Lady Lockwood told us, participation in local decision-making, whether it be in economic matters, education or running local activities has become fairly 1551 irrelevant because there has been so little scope for shaping those activities to the service of local needs and ambitions. Is it really appropriate for central government to intervene down to the level of individual companies? It seems to me that, although the Government talk of local partnerships, those partnerships are actually being driven by central government.
Noble Lords can imagine how demeaning and disheartening it is to be removed from local authority control and given operational independence but then to become completely dependent on a national quango for funding. That is exactly what has happened to the colleges of further education. I have never been on a quango, but I imagine that that is why my noble friend Lord Irvine referred to quangos as a travesty of democracy.
Let us take, for example, the Employment Service. It is a nationally administered government organisation with a strong local and regional presence, but there is no local and regional influence on its activities. The service is there to carry out the wishes of central government; the role of local government is really peripheral. What central government should be doing is providing a stable framework of regulation, standards and support. Those standards, set down by central government, are essential to avoid social exclusion. The support should be in the form of intervention which does not discriminate between specific businesses but which helps all businesses to meet those standards and objectives.
At this late hour, noble Lords will be pleased that the point I now wish to make is simple and obvious. Centralised government is a drag on the economy. Our competitiveness as a nation is the sum of its parts. The Government's own competitiveness White Paper has shown how variable the regions are: that variation is partly the result of many years of centralised government. The Government's proposed cure is to apply more of the same medicine yet more vigorously. My proposal is to change the medicine to more democratic regional government and bring government closer to the people.
§ 10.31 p.m.
§ Lord Ellenborough
My Lords, after 17 or 18 years in opposition, noble Lords opposite may just wonder why Labour Governments have never lasted beyond the lifetime of a single Parliament; or, at any rate not beyond six years. I have no doubt that there are many reasons, but I suggest that a major one is their obsession with constitutional reform. I recollect that the Wilson Government of the late 1960s came very badly unstuck over the reform of the House of Lords, despite having a majority of over a hundred. Then the Callaghan Government was effectively brought down, not so much by the winter of discontent but by devolution. I should have thought that any future Labour Government—that is, if one comes about—would be well advised to hasten very slowly towards those two objectives, before both feet get firmly encased in concrete.
I have been privileged to be a Member of your Lordships' House for a long time. I would dearly have liked to have taken part in tomorrow's debate; but, 1552 unfortunately, I cannot be present for the whole day so I put my name down to speak today. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will allow me to make a few remarks on the subject of this House before I say a few words on devolution.
During the long time that I have been here, I have been privileged to witness how your Lordships' House has gradually, but successfully, evolved. Indeed, it has always worked very well, with very little public criticism. However, that is not to say that I would not have some changes in mind. It may surprise some noble Lords to know that I took part in the proceedings on the Life Peerages Bill introduced by Viscount Simon in 1953 and that I spoke in favour of it. Therefore, I have been supporting life peers before they were introduced in this House a few years later, so I feel that I can look any life peer in the face.
However, I also recollect that Mr. Asquith said early in the century that reform of the House of Lords brooks no delay. So why has that taken nearly a century? I would suggest that that is because it is a non-issue; so why make it one? Perhaps it is an issue at smart dinner parties in Islington but it certainly is not an issue on the Tube or in the high street. I should like to say more but I fear that already the forecast finishing time of this debate of 10.20 p.m. has been exceeded. I must say my few words on the dreaded subject of devolution.
My view is that any claims that devolution would strengthen the Union are completely bogus, as by weakening the Westminster Parliament the reverse would be true. It would encourage nationalists and anger English taxpayers, and of course encourage the European federalists who want a Europe of little regions as opposed to nation states.
What I particularly dislike is what the Labour Party has in mind, which is in effect a rewriting of the relationship between England, Scotland and Wales to the advantage of the smaller two and to the disadvantage of England. What is so misleading is the impression that is given that, particularly in the case of the Scots, they can gain a Parliament in Edinburgh to run their affairs and yet lose none of their power or influence at Westminster.
There is of course considerable dissatisfaction in Scotland with Westminster—there is no doubt about that—but this serious problem is being addressed energetically by the Secretary of State for Scotland, by means of a greatly enhanced role for the Scottish Grand Committee and by other measures.
I recall in 1979 the conventional wisdom was that there would be big majorities in favour of devolution. But in the event the voting was even in Scotland and four to one against in Wales. No doubt a vote tomorrow would ensure a substantial "yes" vote but there will not be a vote tomorrow. If and when it comes to the crunch, as it would in a referendum campaign, and one is faced with the stark reality, it is a different matter. It may well be that the people of Scotland and Wales would again have the good sense to frustrate these dangerous half-baked notions, especially if a referendum is to be held prior to the detailed legislation, which is surely rather akin to offering shares in a new company before seeing the prospectus.
1553 The massive disadvantages and risks in devolution would become apparent. Even now, as rather belatedly Conservative opposition to devolution is moving into higher gear, this has already caused a major tactical retreat by the Labour Party. There have been two U-turns, on the subject of a referendum and on whether there are to be tax-raising powers. A referendum would not make these plans any less dangerous.
It certainly should not be forgotten that a future Labour Government have pledged themselves to fight hard to ensure an affirmative vote on the tax-raising powers—the "tartan tax". No Scottish parliament will be satisfied if it does not have tax-raising powers. The threat of tax increases would inevitably frighten away investment, jobs would be lost and public enthusiasm would wane as before.
There is then the unanswered West Lothian question on which much has been said this afternoon. My prediction is the next U-turn will be a reduction in the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs at Westminster. That has already been conceded by the independent Constitution Unit. I think I am right in saying that the Liberal Democrat party feels the same way. Already Scotland and Wales are heavily over-represented at Westminster. It is no good hiding behind the absurd notion of unwanted, completely rootless and artificially fabricated English regions. These would be a bureaucratic nightmare. There would be another tier of professional politicians. Without tax-raising and legislative powers, it would be quite meaningless in terms of equitable democratic representation.
Nor, if I may say so, does the charge of inconsistency levelled at the Government by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, and others carry weight regarding the proposed setting up of an assembly in Northern Ireland. This argument ignores reality. There have been years of strife in Northern Ireland. Only the Scots are after Scotland; only the Welsh are after Wales. But, regrettably, a minority of people in Northern Ireland wish to become citizens of a foreign country which has a claim in its constitution to Northern Ireland itself. A further point is that surely no Northern Ireland MP can ever realistically become a senior member, or a member at all, of any government in the UK. At present all the major local government powers for the Province are exercised by the United Kingdom Government. The position is completely different.
I hope that the Government will stand up for the Union in all parts of the UK, and that includes Northern Ireland. I have no connection with Northern Ireland, but we should not forget that there is a loyal majority community in Northern Ireland. One tends to forget about the majority community in Northern Ireland, which seems sadly sidelined at times. Any lack of conviction on the part of the Government towards one part of the United Kingdom does not bode well for the remainder of the United Kingdom.
§ 10.41 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, it falls to me yet again to be tail-end Charlie. I never know whether the usual 1554 channels think of keeping the best to the end or whether my contribution is not worth waiting for. I hope that it may steer somewhere between the two extremes.
I wish to say a few words on tax, structures of government and democracy, and representation. It is intriguing that the only precedent of which I am aware for the Scottish Grand Committee perambulating around various parts of Scotland taking Ministers in tow with it is the practice of Queen Elizabeth I in taking her entourage and court around the various stately homes of England. That accomplished two things. First, it made the scions of those families feel very important. But, secondly, it impoverished them because they had to provide victuals for the travelling court. While I am sure that the Scottish Grand Committee does not seek to impoverish the various places it visits, I believe that part of the exercise by the Government is to make people think that they are important. I am not sure whether that is the reality of the way this Government think of people.
I read the speech delivered last week by the Prime Minister. One section interested me. He talked of strengthening the independence of individuals by reducing taxation, and encouraging home ownership and private pensions. The encouragement of home ownership in the past few years has resulted in negative equity for a large number of people. The mis-selling of private pensions has resulted in a significant number of people having worse provision for their pensions.
The real problem, however, which is fundamental to the political analysis is the Government's postulation that they have reduced taxation, that they are the party of low taxation. The Financial Statement and Budget Report 1996–97, introduced by Michael Jack on 28th November 1995, gives the latest figures I could find. Paragraph 4.17 shows a chart of the total taxes and social security contributions as a percentage of GDP. Most people would recognise that as a measure of the amount of taxation that the British people are required to contribute. In the period between 1974 and 1979, the average was 35.6 per cent. In the period between 1980 and 1995, the average was 37.41 per cent. My arithmetic suggests that, far from reducing taxation, the Government have levied a higher rate of taxation on the British people than the last Labour Government. In only three out of the 16 years in question was the percentage tax take less than the last Labour Government's average. In 11 out of those 16 Tory years taxes were higher than the highest of the last Labour Government. Unfortunately, we start with a big lie that the Tories are the party of low taxation.
I turn to the structures of government and democracy. I am pleased to count among my ancestors one of the first MPs for Plymouth in the Reform Parliament of 1832. In the days before 1832, whole towns and cities were unrepresented in Parliament. I shall not go through all the details of the changes over the years, it is far too late and I do not wish to detain the House. However, over those years we can see the development of democracy in government at various levels. In the mid-1970s, for example, in Manchester, where I live, there was a city council with elected representatives, levying local taxes. There was the county of 1555 Greater Manchester, a regional authority, levying a precept. At the UK national level there was the UK Parliament levying taxes with elected representatives. At the continental level there was the European Union, and at the global level the United Nations.
Unfortunately, from 1979 onwards, that representation and the equivalent levying of taxes were eroded and destroyed. The Greater Manchester county was abolished in 1985 by the Government. The ability of the citizens of that metropolitan conurbation, not only to elect representatives who could speak for the whole of Greater Manchester but also to levy taxes and spend money, was destroyed.
In addition, the development of the European Union which could be a powerful engine for progress has been stultified and halted, not just by this Government's actions but by the monetarist philosophy. The Maastricht Treaty has been mentioned this evening and it was obviously not acceptable, as a vehicle to move forward, to the vast majority of the European peoples.
If one takes the development of the United Nations, there is a need to try to democratise that institution to enable equal representation. But this Government have persistently refused to consider change because, as a result of events 50 years ago, this country has a seat at the top table. That is unwarranted.
I mentioned the problems of taxation and the way in which the Conservative Party has wrongly portrayed itself as the party of low taxation. But one thinks of other events that have taken place over the past 17 years. We have seen an erosion of our manufacturing base and a decline in our living standards compared, for example, to those of Italy. Twenty years ago our per capita income and standard of living were higher than those of Italy. Over the last period of this Government, the Italian standard of living has surpassed ours.
One thing we have done over the years is endeavour to ensure that those people who are our representatives—at whatever level, district, county, national or continental—are elected by roughly equal numbers of people. So each representative in those forums has equal weight. That is a very important element to remember: that not only do we value every one of the electorate equally, but each member of a democratically elected forum has an equal voice. I do not think that the talk of proportional representation that we have heard will help to continue that very powerful base for our concept of democracy.
It is rather late. I had intended to say a few words about the constitution of this place. But one of the difficulties in Members of this House contributing to that debate is the risk of being charged with having a vested interest.
Finally, in regard to a written constitution, I am always a little suspicious when I hear lawyers arguing for a written constitution. I am not sure what a written constitution will do for the mass of the unemployed in this country. The massed ranks on the Government Front Bench say, "Hear, hear", but they are not doing anything for the massed ranks of the unemployed either. On that note, I end my remarks.
§ 10.54 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I am astonished at my own virtue and the virtue of everyone who has sat through this marathon. The Government Chief Whip mistimed the debate by an hour. I have enjoyed many of the speeches. I must admit to feeling some slight irritation when we were already running an hour late and a certain noble Lord stood up and said that he was terribly sorry, he had an important engagement and had to leave—and then spoke for 14 minutes. But on the whole the debate has been most enjoyable. I greatly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, and I enjoyed that made by my own leader. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, was not satisfactory. He said everything that I had intended to say but a great deal better, which is always infuriating. He gave an edge to it.
I must say that the speeches from the opposite side have been very, very worrying. The Tory Party is obviously so depressed it is not true. Every single one of their speeches spelled gloom and the break up of the United Kingdom, with terrible things about to happen. Obviously, they know that there is going to be a Labour Government; otherwise they would not be so gloomy. Of course, we may all be gloomy about a Labour Government, but they cannot be worse than the Conservative Government.
I shall try to alleviate the gloom and doom felt by Members on the opposite Benches. First, we have federal systems and regional governments all over Europe. We were the main instigators of the German system. Apart from Sweden, that is now the richest nation in Europe. They are having their troubles, but the systems are still working and the people are much richer than we are, so things cannot be all that gloomy. The Catalonian experiment of regional government in Spain is working well and attracting business.
Much has already been mentioned about Ulster. I have little experience of Ulster since the troubles started but, before the troubles, I used to go there quite a lot looking at agriculture. I was astonished at how well the Ulster parliament, the Stormont parliament, worked, how closely they all worked together and how successful they were in a whole lot of fields, particularly in agriculture, which I knew about. Long before we had realised that silage and making use of grass was important, they had grasped it because of the close cooperation between Queens University and a certain Professor Morrison and the fact that they all knew each other, and they were putting out subsidies for the building of silos, to the great benefit of agriculture.
Their transport was integrated in a way that ours has never been, and it worked extremely well. One of the things they did was to attract industry. When we were practically turning away inward investment and not encouraging our own investment very much, they were working hard at it and they were most successful—far more successful than we were in Scotland or anywhere else at that time. Of course, the 1557 oppression of a minority led to the troubles, and however well it worked technically, the parliament had to go. But it has to come back.
I wish to say something at this point to the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, whose contribution to prosperity in Scotland I applaud and thank him for. But he said that he was very grateful to the Secretary of State for all that he had done, and various companies could not have done what they have done without the assistance of the Secretary of State; and he said what a valuable chap the Secretary of State is.
The Secretary of State for Scotland, so far as I can see, spends most of his time fighting with his colleagues in England in order to get concessions, trying to overcome little things like being forced to introduce the poll tax before its introduction in England as an experiment for England, and putting up with that sort of thing. Indeed, the Secretaries of State and Ministers in the recent past were a very much better breed of Conservative, in my view, than many of the present ones and they spent their time trying to alleviate the ridiculous policies of the Conservative Government—for example, in selling off the Forestry Commission's estates. I will not name any names, but they showed great skill in selling off the smallest bits and those that they thought would not interfere with the integrity of the whole thing.
I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Nickson—and, like my noble friend, I talk about home rule—if you have home rule parliament in Scotland, the officers and Ministers there would fall over themselves in order to help industry, because that is what they want, and it is not only they who want it. They would not only be acting to get inward investment from large firms all over the globe; they would be acting to stimulate and help local investment in Scotland, based in Scotland. They would not be fighting against anyone in order to get it, because the parliament itself would be all for development in Scotland. That, I believe, is the basis of the argument which has long convinced me that we should have home rule in Scotland inside the United Kingdom. I have spent my life in Great Britain and not only in Scotland.
There is a lesson that has not been learnt by the Government, as shown in the speeches engendered at this start of the election campaign, which centred on the fact that the SNP will gain power. All the history of the British Isles, particularly the Irish history, shows that where any form of home rule is refused, the SNP, the Irish nationalists or whoever it may be, gain power. There are a lot of very good people in the SNP; they are not all crackpots by any manner of means and a lot of them are doing good work in local government. The fact is that if we have home rule in Scotland and if they have the opportunity to work and get results, they will forget about independence and promote the good of Scotland. That is a lesson that we have to learn. By that, one will save the Union. There is no question in my mind but that that is the way to go. I recommend the party opposite to forget the gloom and start thinking ahead.
§ 11.2 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, my belief is that the context in which this debate is set is one of disenchantment and disaffection. There is a very widespread feeling of alienation in the United Kingdom. It is not limited to the understandable phrase, common in the United States, that "it's time to throw the rascals out".
The governed in our country feel—I believe they feel rightly—that those who are set in authority over them are careless of their rights, their needs and their desires, are remote from their true problems and are incapable of righting real wrongs. But one does not want to be unnecessarily gloomy. We heard earlier today that the Prime Minister has a cunning plan. He intends to send the Stone of Scone back to Scotland. What a contribution to constitutional advance! There is hardly any more to be said.
The inevitable consequence, which I described earlier, derives from the statism which has typified this country's governing methods for the past 20 years. The fact is that power has been ruthlessly sucked into the great central maw. Local discretion, real choice and individual care have virtually vanished. What we have left now is the thin, emaciated ghost of what was once thriving local government.
We need historical perspective on these occasions. I was not a Member of your Lordships' House in 1832 nor had any relative of mine a seat there; nor did such conditions obtain in 1870, just after the Secret Ballot Act had been passed. But had I had the infinite benefit of being present either in 1832 or in 1870, I should have heard exactly the same arguments deployed that I heard this evening: where will it all end? It will be the end of civilisation as we know it. It will mean the break-up of the Union.
The fact is that there were two coincident developments in the 19th century: the first was an accretion of power to Westminster, but coincident with that development there grew up flourishing, powerful local government. The two were not enemies; they were brothers who marched together. The great cities, by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of this, had the power and the ability to provide—whatever the blemishes—local services responsive to local needs. What would Joseph Chamberlain say now about the present wreck that he would see?
Is there anyone present to take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Haskel? Is there anyone present who would dispute for a single second that, were there a referendum in Greater London tomorrow, there would be a massive affirmative vote for London-wide government? It is the only city in the civilised world without local government. It is foolish, it is idle to speak of a continuing Union when the present Government have distorted the machinery of government in this country to throw true unionism out of kilter.
The deficit in effective locally-controlled power has secondary consequences. I should like to deal for a moment with at least two parts of the United Kingdom 1559 in which I have an interest. Very little has been said about Northern Ireland. I do not chide the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor; he specifically said that he had a limited time and therefore a limited field in which he could deploy his view. But Northern Ireland has hardly been mentioned. Is it any wonder that Northern Ireland and many people who live there feel resentment?
There is no locally accountable democracy of any consequence in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State sits in Hillsborough, the last pale Viceroy. Good candidates will not stand for public office when public office is a sham and a joke, having no power except whether or not street lighting should be set in a specific cul-de-sac; whether bins should be collected on Wednesday or possibly, after anguished philosophical dispute, on Thursday. The quangos there are all-powerful; they come from a closed, charmed circle. That circle is controlled by individuals, many of whom have said tonight that the Union is valid and must continue. The Union will be valid and it should continue only if it provides decent accommodation in the widest sense to all its citizens, and it fails to do so.
I have complained regularly about the quango system in Northern Ireland. The police authority is not elected even in part; the chairman is employed and dismissed at the curt conclusion of the Secretary of State. It is only responsible power which encourages people to join fully in a Union.
It was not, so far as I am aware, the leader of the Labour Party who said:The United Kingdom Government has no selfish economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland".It was Mr. Peter Brooke, and the words were repeated by the present Secretary of State and the present Prime Minister as part of the present Government's policy. Mr. Budgen, the Member for Wolverhampton in another place, when that phrase was first used, asked whether it could properly be applied also to Wolverhampton, his constituency; and answer came there none.
Perhaps I can indulge myself for a moment or two with the question of Wales. I find little to say about Scotland because it has all been endlessly said before and I want to avoid being one of those Members of your Lordships' House who say, "What I intended to say has already been said" and then spend half-an-hour repeating it. All I can say is that, self-evidently, to any reasonable and reasoning sentient being, the Labour Party's policy for Scotland is absolutely right in every conceivable way. I just wanted to put the matter reasonably.
Let us look at Wales for a moment or two. I listened with great care to the speech of my noble friend Lord Tonypandy. He and I will agree on this: the overwhelming bulk of those who live in Wales want to remain willing participants in the United Kingdom. They love and revere their own country, Wales. They respect and treasure what should be the generous diversity of the United Kingdom. I have lived in England for most of my adult life. It is a fine country. It has aspects of generosity and openness, 1560 sometimes, which make it great. It has aspects sometimes which are exclusive. I shall not fully repeat the well-known phrase and tag from the late President Lyndon Johnson about tent inclusion and exclusion because I believe that it is too well-known to require repetition.
The fact is that if you live in Wales at the moment you are offered the present circumstances. The Treasury allocates to the Welsh Office £7 billion per year. It is all controlled by the Welsh Office. For the past 17 years the Welsh Office has been in the hands of Conservative appointees. But there are only six Conservative MPs in the Palace of Westminster elected from Welsh constituencies. One-third of the £7 billion is handed over to quangos. They are packed with unelected placemen and women, with rather fewer of the latter than the former. They are subject to no scrutiny by the people nor to any censure or sanction by election. They are secretive, unrepresentative and, in many instances, actually corrupt. I hear some tutting. Read the Welsh newspapers over the past five years if my veracity is doubted, and the records of those who have been sent to prison. Almost every aspect of public administration in Wales is rigidly controlled in that way. The late Mayor Daley of Chicago and the even later Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana would have taken off their hats in silent and respectful admiration.
What is to be done? The fact is that devolution exists in Wales and Scotland at the moment. The debate is not about devolution, as the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, rightly said, it is about control and accountability of the devolved powers. I believe that the basis of the referendum in Wales is morally right and constitutionally appropriate. The question is going to be two-fold. First, does Wales want an elected assembly and, secondly, does it wish proportional representation to be the mechanism of election? I do not despise my fellow citizens in Wales. I believe that they are able to understand questions as well as any Member of your Lordships' House.
The second point about the referendum, curiously in our political life, is unselfish. On first past the post in Wales, the Labour Party would win a crushing victory. That is not what we want. We do not want a monolithic, selfish superiority. We have had more than enough of that from the present Government. We want an assembly to reflect a pluralistic society. We want every significant strand of public thought and opinion to be fairly represented and to be honourably considered. We want women to have their full part to play. We want diversity of language, culture, religion and history to be included and welcomed. We are not afraid to welcome to the full table those who differ from us. That will be the basis of a continuing Union. There is virtually no sizeable segment of public opinion in Wales which wishes the break up of the Union. We are a small country. We despise no one. We devalue no one else's language or history, but we are proud of our own. We believe that we have a moral entitlement to decide for ourselves whether or not we want an assembly. The slave and serf will never co-operate with a master; the equal will.
1561 At the moment, there is a strange undercurrent in our lives. The tide is changing. I do not believe that the present Government—I put it as carefully as I can—have understood the deep changes that are beginning to occur. The conduct of government in the past 17 years has done serious damage and caused significant rending of our national life, by which I mean the life of the entire United Kingdom, diverse as it is.
This has been an important debate, and on occasions it has been repetitive. But I hope that some of the words that have been spoken will cause the Government to think again. If they do not accommodate that thinking, lasting damage will be done to the fabric of our Union.
§ 11.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I begin by welcoming to our House, albeit in his absence, the Lord Chief Justice. His speech was one of great clarity and elegance and was highly informative. We congratulate him most warmly on his appointment to his new office.
The quality of today's debate has more than justified the Government's decision to set aside two days for discussion of our constitution. Your Lordships' contributions have covered a wide range of issues both thoughtfully and in depth, and I think that the quality of debate today has reinforced the strong arguments for preserving this House in its present form.
The constitution of the United Kingdom has evolved over hundreds of years. The strength and security it has provided are matters of which we can all be proud. It has safeguarded our individual rights and freedoms for centuries. Yet, if elected, the party opposite would dismantle that constitutional settlement in its first year of office. Their proposals would, as the Prime Minister has stressed, lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Scotland would be set on the path to independence with its own tax-raising parliament. Wales would be cut adrift through the establishment of an assembly in Cardiff. England would be carved up into a chaotic patchwork of regional assemblies, and more powers would be taken from Westminster and handed to Brussels. Our 900 year-old Parliament would be left impotent.
The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred to an inconsistency on the part of the Government on the issue of subsidiarity. He said that it was argued for vigorously by the Government in relation to Europe but not for parts of the United Kingdom. I suggest that there is a real distinction here. Brussels needs nation states to control it but European federalists like the idea of breaking up the United Kingdom—and other member states—into regions. I suggest that it is part of the grand design of those who support a federalist solution. The dissembling of countries into regions enables Brussels to bypass national governments and thus avoid the necessary control by national governments.
Noble Lords opposite claim that their proposals would improve the way in which the United Kingdom is governed by devolving power to the regions. In reality, they would simply increase bureaucracy by creating a whole new tier of government. If there is a 1562 problem, the usual solution suggested by noble Lords opposite is more government. Real devolution means giving individuals the freedom to make their own decisions—giving the people, not the bureaucrats, the power to choose. That is what this Government have consistently done in the face of bitter opposition from noble Lords opposite. For example, the users of services now have far more information about the quality of the service they receive with performance tables, comparative waiting times and information on key indicators. They increasingly have the ultimate power of voting with their feet by switching schools or choosing another hospital. The Conservatives have never shied away from change. We took Britain into Europe. We set up the Select Committees system. We have transferred power from Whitehall both to Scotland and Wales. The new arrangements for the Scottish Grand Committee have provided opportunities for the most senior Ministers of the Crown to contribute to debates about matters within their responsibilities relating to Scotland as well as providing for Second and Third Reading debates on Scottish Bills to take place in the Grand Committee, whenever it makes sense to do so.
Changes announced by the Secretary of State for Wales will ensure that there is more discussion of Welsh business in Parliament and that it is more accessible to the people of Wales.
Those changes are evolutionary. They build on existing arrangements. They maintain the distinctive tradition of Scotland and Wales without undermining the prosperity and well being of the United Kingdom.
As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has said, the Government are unequivocally committed to the Union. We believe that the present arrangements whereby Scotland and Wales enjoy the advantages of full representation at Westminster and a Secretary of State with a seat in the Cabinet are to the best advantage, not only of the people of Scotland and Wales, but to the whole of the United Kingdom. A strong, united nation state to which all parts of the kingdom contribute and in which all are represented also provides the most effective means of advancing the interests of the whole country both within the European Union and indeed throughout the world—a partial answer to my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Dalzell. A fragmented country quickly loses its influence among other nations.
As the Economist has saidAny constitutional changes … should pass three tests: They should be clear, should be perceived as workable, and should command widespread consent. Labour's devolution proposals fail on all three counts".A referendum on them has now been promised. But one has to ask what result would constitute widespread consent. The Labour Party says 50 per cent. But 50 per cent. on what turn-out?
The party opposite proposes that Scotland should have its own tax-raising parliament. That would lead to the dismemberment of the United Kingdom. There would be no second Chamber to revise legislation; no checks or balances to its power. Of its 129 members, 56 of them would be placemen appointed by party 1563 leaders. There would be gender quotas for its membership, which as a woman I find extraordinarily patronising.
That parody of a parliament would have the power over many of the matters which most concern people: their housing, children's education, health. To cap it all, that parliament would have the power to raise taxes—a special tartan tax. I have heard some noble Lords say that the parliament would be free to cut tax rates as well as raise them. But looking at Labour's record in office—both nationally and locally—that is inconceivable. As the honourable Member for Dundee East saidI certainly do not envisage in the near future any left of centre government cutting taxes in Scotland".In addition, Labour would introduce a minimum wage and sign up to the Social Chapter. Inward investment would be lost, and jobs destroyed.
For months people have been warning against the Labour Party's plans. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has forecast that the basic rate of income tax in Scotland would rise from 24 pence to nearly 37 pence if devolution took place.
Rather than admit it is wrong and drop the proposals, the party opposite has now promised a referendum on them. But a referendum will not answer any of the fundamental questions that the proposals raise.
As the honourable Member for Linlithgow said:Why should Scottish MPs at Westminster be able to vote on purely English matters while English MPs will have no say over matters devolved to a Scottish Parliament?Does the party opposite really intend that Scottish MPs should be able to vote on and decide matters relating to England while English MPs would not be allowed to vote on matters relating to Scotland? If it proposes to prevent all Scottish MPs from voting on matters relating solely to England, how would they form a government at Westminster? My noble friend Lord Gray of Contin posed another interesting question about the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland, which also needs to be addressed under any such proposals.
And if a Scottish Parliament were established, would the Labour Party reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster to ensure that Scotland no longer had higher representation at Westminster than her population justifies? Finally, there is the question of who votes in this referendum—a question posed by my noble friend Lord Beloff. A Scottish parliament will impact quite materially on the English. Will they have the chance to vote?
Those are fundamental questions. They need to be answered. But noble Lords opposite have so far failed to answer them.
I shall answer quite directly the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, about what we on this side of the House would do if, heaven forfend, noble Lords opposite were to come to power on a clear manifesto pledge for devolution, and proceeded in power in the first Session of Parliament to prepare the legislation for a referendum leading to devolution and to a Bill. We would do what our parliamentary democracy allows us to do. We would oppose such legislation and we would bow only to the will of Parliament as a whole. Indeed, 1564 it would be important on such a constitutional issue for each and every Member of this House to follow his conscience. I hope too that voice would be given in this House and in another place by MPs to those people of Scotland who did not want to support a devolved Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, in posing a question to my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin, appeared to advocate government by plebiscite, especially referring to wasting prime parliamentary time on the detail of a devolution Bill. Although those of us on this side of the House would not like to see the Bill at all, we would not regard the opportunity of debating and possibly opposing and/or revising such a Bill as wasting parliamentary time. If noble Lords were ever to proceed in that way we would argue that Parliament must use all of the time it has and all the time needed to give full voice to our views on such a constitutional proposal. To do otherwise would be giving way to dictatorship.
The noble Lord, Lord Plant, was disappointed that noble Lords have not mentioned the role of local government. That is another of the questions to be answered by noble Lords opposite. Devolution and regional assemblies would indeed impact on local government. What thought has been given to that in their proposals? However, that issue was put right by my noble friend Lord Bowness, and he has made good the deficit.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, on his research into comments made more than 20 years ago in support of devolution by my friends who now hold high office in government. I shall resist the temptation to talk of the right honourable Mr. Blair, who has had a road-to-Damascus conversion on nuclear weapons. However, what a pity the noble Lord did not follow through the logic of his argument. The Conservative Party did indeed look at devolution and was attracted by an idea; that was until the practicalities and contradictions inherent in such a proposal became clear. I refer to the West Lothian question, the role of the Secretary of State in Cabinet, the issue of finance and so forth.
We have sought to develop ways of giving a greater voice and influence to Scotland through the Grand Committee, linked directly with Parliament in Westminster which represents the whole of the Union. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has taken steps to strengthen the role of the Scottish Grand Committee which meet the concern of the noble Earl, Lord Perth: that of scrutinising the work of the Scottish Office. Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lady Saltoun that those arrangements will indeed be kept under review.
The noble Lord, Lord Burton, asked about the cost of a Scottish Parliament. Initial estimates are of a capital cost of £36 million for permanent buildings, offices for Members and staff, and accommodation for extra civil servants; ongoing annual costs, salaries and running costs are about £40 million.
1565 A referendum will not answer any of the fundamental questions which the Labour Party raises, as the honourable Member for Linlithgow in another place has said. I shall not repeat that argument.
I turn to proposals for a Welsh Assembly. There is no evidence that the people of Wales want such a body. The most reliable statement by the Welsh people was in the referendum of 1979 when the Labour Government's proposals for an assembly were rejected overwhelmingly. Only 20.3 per cent. of the turnout—that is 11.9 per cent. of the electorate—voted in favour. I might add that 71.7 per cent. of businessmen surveyed in the Institute of Directors' Wales Division business survey of May 1996 did not believe that Wales should have its own assembly.
In Wales, a separate assembly would create an unnecessary and costly tier of bureaucracy between Parliament and the 22 new unitary authorities and would inevitably take over the functions of local government, so increasing confusion and undermining accountability.
I was moved and deeply impressed by the speech of that eminent parliamentarian and man of the valleys, the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy. He articulated better than I ever could the case against devolution to an assembly in Wales. My noble friends and I agree with him wholeheartedly.
It has been suggested also that devolved powers within Scotland and Wales should be matched by the creation of new regional assemblies where they were desired in England. Regional assemblies would simply add an unwanted and unnecessary additional tier of bureaucracy and cost to existing arrangements.
The real reason for current talk about regional assemblies lies in the difficulty which proponents of assemblies for Scotland and Wales face in making sense of their proposals. But the arbitrary carving up of England into regions would not justify devolution elsewhere. It is always open to local authorities to co-operate in areas where that would be mutually beneficial and add value to the services they can provide to the communities which they represent.
Some local authorities have established regional fora to provide joint action and a single voice for the region but they consist of existing councillors. One such assembly exists in the North East, where I am a sponsor Minister, and another will be launched in Yorkshire and Humberside on 8th July.
As for regional offices, government offices are not pieces of machinery of regional government. They are integral parts of central government. They were created in April 1984 to bring together the functions of the Departments of Employment, of the Environment, Trade and Industry and Transport, which were already being discharged through a network in the English regions.
They have no separate legal identity. The officials who staff them continue to be accountable to Ministers of the four departments. There is no constitutional novelty there. The only unusual aspect is that the 1566 regional directors are responsible to four separate Secretaries of State rather than just one and they are all accountable to Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred to Northern Ireland. The situation there deserves a solution tailored to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland where, I remind the House, unlike in Scotland, there has previously been an assembly. The Government's aim is to improve democratic arrangements in Northern Ireland by returning more power to the local political representatives.
I think that this evening the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, rather blew a hole in the all-party approach to Northern Ireland issues. He will know that all-party talks are at a sensitive stage in Northern Ireland and those involved will continue to work painstakingly towards a solution for Northern Ireland. None of us can pre-empt the outcome of those talks and it would be wrong to do so at this time. However, I can say that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has shown great courage and determination in pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland.
Protecting the rights of the individual lies at the heart of the Government's policy on open government. It is clearly right that legitimate requests for information should be met. That is why the Government have introduced a package of measures, including the code of practice on open government, which meets the principal objectives of freedom of information legislation without the cost, confrontation, delay and the legal complexity experienced under some statutory freedom of information regimes overseas.
Under our system, appeals to the Parliamentary Ombudsman against non-disclosure of information can be made at no cost to the appellant which provides an individual with the right of complaint free of financial considerations. Those measures are winning considerable support as they increasingly take effect.
Some noble Lords have argued that the freedom of the individual in this country would be better protected if Britain had a written constitution and/or a new Bill of Rights, setting out a list of fundamental rights. But as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reminded us recently, we already have a living, breathing, working constitution, which already provides very effectively for the protection of the individual's rights and freedoms and one which can also change with the spirit of the times.
The noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, made a point most powerfully when he asked rhetorically how many other countries would even recognise a miscarriage of justice, let alone investigate one. He was rightly indignant about those who do not value just how much protection of the individual there is in this country; and how right he is.
The noble Lord also reminded us that a written constitution is not necessarily a guarantee of protection. Indeed, he used the analogy of the Weimar Republic, which did have a written constitution and which, quite specifically, included rights for religious freedom. Tell that to the Jews! 1567 Frankly, that constitution was not worth the paper that it was written on. On the noble Lord's other point about the Charity Commission and Charter 88, I have no doubt that the commission will have noted what the noble Lord had to say about the charter.
We have no need to immobilise our constitution in statutes, and we have no need for a new Bill of Rights seeking to codify the rights and freedoms enjoyed by people in this country. Most people would agree that human rights are already very well safeguarded in the United Kingdom. Our rights and freedoms are inherent in our legal systems, and are protected by them and by Parliament, unless those protections are removed or restricted by statute.
However, what such a Bill would do is to transfer responsibility for determining matters affecting individual rights and freedoms from Parliament to the courts, eroding the principle of parliamentary sovereignty which is fundamental to our constitution.
Some have suggested that the courts are already involved in such matters, that the boundary between policy-making and judicial interpretation has already been crossed, for example, through the use of judicial review. It is clearly right that the courts should hold Ministers to the proper use of their powers and should safeguard the procedural quality of decision-making. That is merely an example of our constitution working. But by the same token, it is of course ultimately up to Parliament to decide the laws and to create the framework within which judges and courts make their judgments.
It is too easy at times to take the safeguards and the protection that we enjoy for granted. We must not fall into the trap of doing so. We should be proud of those fundamental parts of our heritage and not seek to change them where there is neither a clear need nor an advantage in doing so. Some noble Lords have argued that, instead of a Bill of Rights, or as a first step towards one, the United Kingdom should incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, into our domestic law. For the reasons I have already explained, the Government do not believe that seeking to codify individual rights and freedoms in our law, whether in the form of an incorporated treaty or a free-standing bill of rights, is either necessary or desirable.
Those who suggest that the United Kingdom's record on breaches of the ECHR is the worst in Europe are simply misinformed. The UK's record of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights compares well with the record of any other country. Listening to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, I had to ask myself: what is the practical benefit of incorporation? On the contrary, incorporation would have required the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords to decide on yesterday's case in another way.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships some examples of the records of other countries as regards breaches of the ECHR: 27 allegations of violation respectively against the Portugese and Greek Governments were 1568 declared admissible by the Commission; 28 against the Austrian Government; 39 against the Government of the Netherlands; 57 against the Turkish Government; 148 against the French Government; and 453 against the Italian Government. Over the same period, only 24 allegations against the United Kingdom were declared admissible. Those figures hardly support the claim that incorporation reduces the number of cases going forward to Strasbourg. I agree with the powerful speech of my noble friend Lord Kingsland when he argued that incorporation is not necessary and, if it were suggested, it would only be futile.
I said earlier that we did not owe our constitution to political theories. It has been formed by the people of this country over the years. It is a lively, vibrant thing that embodies their values, their understandings, their respect for the individual and his freedom under the law. The changes which have taken place over the years have not been made for the sake of change or in the interests of particular institutions; they have been practical changes, driven by what people want and not what some people out there think they need. Over the centuries they have brought the government closer to the people. That is what we want. That is what we as a government have been concerned to do.
We have moved power away from central bureaucratic structures so that it is now closer to the people and to consumers. That has been done across the board in the fields of health, where hospital trusts now take decisions rather than the National Health Service; and in education where school governing bodies and not local government have the final say. It has also been done through the Citizen's Charter which has restored the individual's right to hold large, impersonal organisations to account; and, indeed, through a host of changes which have put consumers rather than providers in charge and have strengthened the independence of individuals. Contrary to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, more individual choice has been opposed root and branch by noble Lords opposite.
In the words of my noble friend Lord Nickson, who spoke so well for the business community in Scotland, the Labour Party proposals would create doubt, disadvantage and disunity. They would do nothing for competitiveness, confidence and continuity. The process of evolutionary change is our great tradition and goes right back to the Magna Carta. It has given us a constitution with firm foundations which binds the people of this country to the institutions which serve them and uphold their freedom. We must not undermine this stability and strength by experimenting and tinkering to no good purpose, or worse, for some narrow political end to enhance the "macho" image of the right honourable Member for Sedgefield.
At the end of the day any decision to change or not to change must be taken by Parliament. Parliament is the process through which the representatives of the people control the Executive. And, as I have said, it is Parliament which decides the laws on which judges and courts make their judgments. I believe passionately that the sovereignty of Parliament is 1569 fundamental to our constitution; that intricate complex of institutions and values which reflects our history as a nation and which values all the people of this country as individuals.
I am grateful to all those who have taken part in today's debate. I have news for the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, and noble Lords opposite. We on these Benches are in good heart. It may come as a disappointment to noble Lords opposite that we are looking forward to a rattling good debate 1570 tomorrow, to be led and concluded by my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Strathclyde respectively.
The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.
Moved, That the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.—(Viscount Cranborne.)
On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.
House adjourned at eighteen minutes before midnight.