Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Unlock Democracy


  Unlock Democracy is a campaign run by Charter 88 and the New Politics Network to ensure that Britain has a strong voice calling for democratic and constitutional reform. Unlock Democracy is non-affiliated and works with political parties across the political spectrum and a wide range of groups and individuals to provide an independent and innovative debate on the future of politics.


    (i) Unlock Democracy believes that power should be devolved to the lowest possible level. The devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been a significant achievement.

    (ii) However a decade on governance in the UK remains highly centralised. We believe that devolution must be an ongoing dialogue rather than a one off reform. There should be an open and transparent process for citizens or devolved assemblies to request additional powers and if there is popular support for this proposal it should not be able to be blocked by central government. Citizens should also be given the right to petition for further decentralisation of power using the mechanism that is already in place for elected Mayors.

    (iii) While we welcome devolution it is also important to recognise that it has created an underlying instability within the UK constitution that needs to be addressed. If a government was elected that did not have a majority of MPs in England but passed laws that applied only to England, this could potentially lead to a constitutional crisis.

    (iv) Unlock Democracy is in favour of devolution of power to the English regions but we recognise that there may need to be a wider package of measures to address the English questions and that this could include the creation of an English Grand Committee.

    (v) England needs to have the same debates about government, power and identity that have already taken place in Scotland and Wales. We believe there should be a constitutional convention to address the issue of governance in the UK at the earliest opportunity.

What issues remain outstanding?

  1.  Unlock Democracy believes that devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was a significant achievement of the 1997 Labour Government. However there is a danger in believing that devolution has been achieved and can somehow be ticked off the list of constitutional reforms that need to be addressed.

  2.  The relationships between the devolved assemblies and Westminster have inevitably evolved over the last decade and will continue to do so. There are calls for further powers to be devolved to both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, although there is not yet a coherent vision of what this means in terms of the Scottish Parliament.

  3.  Unlock Democracy supports the implementations of the Richards Commission proposals in Wales but we believe the process of constitutional change is as important as the individual proposal.

  4.  We believe that it should be possible for citizens to petition for additional powers to be devolved. The principle of petitioning for change has already been accepted for directly elected Mayors and local government Executives. Under the government's proposals it was also necessary for there to be demonstrable public support for regional government before a referendum could be held. We believe that this principle should be taken a step further and that the power to initiate change should be given directly to citizens and then put to a referendum.

  5.  The most pressing outstanding issue regarding the devolution settlement is the English question. There is a growing sense that England is badly served by the devolution settlement. Although it is often phrased in terms of distribution of seats in Westminster the English question is actually a series of questions about identity, the constitution and where power lies.

  6.  When devolution was first proposed critics claimed it would lead to the break up of the United Kingdom, that a Parliament for Scotland would inevitably lead to independence. Our concern is that that if the current sense of grievance in England is not addressed, then it will be England, not Scotland, that precipitates the end of the Union. The status quo is not sustainable. England needs to have the same debates about government, power and identity that have already taken place in Scotland and Wales.

  7.  If a Government were elected with a majority of seats in the UK but not in England and passed laws that applied only to England, it could cause a constitutional crisis. Traditionally Labour governments have relied on the support of MPs from Scottish and Welsh constituencies, where historically they have had more support, to govern the UK. This was accepted even if the government did not have a majority in England, as in most cases policies applied equally to all areas of the UK. This is no longer the case. The dominance of the Labour Party since 1997 has meant that has not yet become an issue but the devolution settlement has left an underlying instability in the UK constitution that needs to be addressed.

  8.  There are a number of proposed solutions to the English questions including an English Parliament, territorial voting, and English Grand Committee and regional government. However just as there is not one English question it is likely that there will not be one answer, rather there will need to be a package of measures to address the different issues.

  9.  An English Parliament would address some of the issues of national identity but would not solve the problem of centralisation within England; power would still need to be devolved to a regional level. A parliament would just be an additional and unnecessary tier of governance.

  10.  We do not support what has been referred to as English Votes for English matters. While this would solve the issue of representation at a technical parliamentary level it would do nothing to address the broader issues of national identity and an overly centralised state. We recognise that the status quo is unsustainable and is creating tensions, but do not believe territorial voting is the solution. England needs power to be decentralised; not a complicated and bureaucratic voting mechanism in Westminster.

  11.  An English Grand Committee has also been put forward as a possible solution. While this would be a useful mechanism for addressing the technical parliamentary issue of English representatives having a forum to explore English only issues, it does not address the fundamental issue of too much power being held at the centre. Nor does it address the broader cultural and identity issues. However it could be used in conjunction with devolution to the regions as a forum for national discussions.

  12.  Unlock Democracy believes that power should be devolved to the lowest possible level. If a decision only affects one community the power to make that decision should rest with that community. The question should be not what powers should be devolved but what functions can only be carried out at a national level.

  13.  Following this principle we believe that devolution in England should take the form of directly elected regional government. It is difficult to see what powers that would only apply to England, which could not be devolved to a regional level. However this would have to involve significant devolution of power from Westminster and not just the regional administration proposed for the North East. Nor would it have to mean devolution to existing governmental regions. There is a strong case for devolving power in some areas down to the local area as some local authorities in southern England are larger than member states of the European union.

  14.  It is important to recognise that devolution to a region of England is not the same as devolution the nations of Scotland and Wales but also that the size and population of England means that even as an independent country, England would need power to be decentralised.

  15.  We have an opportunity to address these issues now, while they are a concern rather than a matter of urgency. If power is not devolved within England, we risk a constitutional crisis and the rise of English nationalism. Under these circumstances it becomes more difficult to resolve the English questions within the context of the United Kindgom.

What is the future of the current Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Are the current arrangements for the Scotland and Wales offices within the DCA appropriate?

  16.  There is no doubt that the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should continue to be represented within government and that there needs to be a Minister accountable for the use of reserved powers. However as the relationship with the devolved assemblies evolves and particularly if further powers are devolved it may be that there is no longer a need for separate Secretaries of State. It may be desirable to move towards having a Secretary of State for nations and regions, rather than separate government offices. However this should only be done in close consultation with the devolved assemblies and relevant stakeholders.

  17.  As the DCA is now incorporated within the much larger Ministry for Justice it may be time to consider moving the offices for Wales and Scotland. Our concern is that that constitutional affairs agenda is going to be submerged beneath the much larger and more controversial criminal justice agenda.

Is the UK's model of asymmetrical devolution sustainable?

  18.  We recognise that variable devolution is a reality of governance in the UK but the same powers should be available to the different nations if they request them. There should be an open and transparent process for devolved assemblies to request additional powers and if there is popular support for this proposal it should not be able to be blocked by central government. For example if a devolved assembly voted to change the electoral system and this was ratified in a referendum, it should not be possible for this reform to be blocked by the Secretary of State.

  19.  Citizens must also be able to call for constitutional change and not be dependent on their elected representatives. We believe that citizens should be able to petition for power to be devolved or for independence. This is already an established principle for elected Mayors we recommend that this use of citizens initiative should be extended, particularly in relation to where decisions are taken.

  20.  Unlock Democracy believes that the outstanding issues from the devolution settlement should be addressed within the broader context of a constitutional convention. Within that there should be the opportunity for the English representatives to meet to debate the English questions but this should be in the context of a broader constitutional settlement. However if for some reason, it was decided not to hold a UK constitutional convention we would support an English constitutional convention to debate these issues.

What are the broader consequences of devolution for the future of the UK's constitution?

  21.  Charter 88, now working with the New Politics Network as Unlock Democracy, has always campaigned for a written constitution, the primary purpose of which would be to set out the limits of what governments may and may not do in our name. We have argued that a written constitution must contain a Bill of Rights, thereby granting every citizen a legal remedy, should they need it, if their rights are infringed by the State.

  22.  The constitutional reforms that have taken place since 1997 while welcome, have made the need for a Citizens' Constitution even more urgent, as has the way in which the Labour Party in government has continued the process of centralisation. Most of those things which used to characterise the British constitution have either now been removed or are irreparably damaged:

    —  we no longer have a unitary state;

    —  the absolute sovereignty of Parliament has been undermined by the Human Rights Act;

    —  Cabinet government is no more than a convenient fiction;

    —  the use of referendums has undermined parliamentary sovereignty—it is difficult to see how the Scottish Parliament could be abolished, for example, without a referendum, even if this is constitutionally possible;

    —  the move towards politicisation of key sections of the civil service has continued; and

    —  the monarchy no longer commands immediate respect nor does it play its once unifying role.

  23.  With the exception of the rule of law, all that is left of the old constitution are its least desirable elements: winner-takes-all elections and Prime Ministerial power—which is, of course, greater than ever.

  24.  Constitutional reform has taken place in a piecemeal fashion in the UK. Radical change there has been, but with no overall sense of the kind of country that these reforms were designed to help build. Each reform seems to have been enacted in isolation without a real idea of how it would impact on the others.

  25.  A written Constitution will set out the rules for the way we make and change the rules. It will provide the basic law and fundamental rights that together provide a framework within which our society will live and prosper.

  26.  We believe that for the citizens to possess a constitution they need to have built it themselves. When the new South Africa wanted to write a constitution following the end of apartheid it embarked on a wide-scale process of public discussion, debate and participation. This is what we want for the UK. This does not need to be in the form of a single document but a new constitutional settlement should include the following. It should:

    —  be created with maximum public involvement;

    —  guarantee political equality and help society aspire towards social equality;

    —  protect democratic representation in and authority over government and public affairs;

    —  provide a framework for the stable rule of law;

    —  ensure that individuals can claim and protect their rights;

    —  empower citizens as individuals, in families and also in communities of place, occupation, choice and lifestyle;

    —  define being a "good citizen" as exercising the power to say "no", to hold authority of all kinds to account, and to resist as well as endorse and assist elected authority; and

    —  describe what citizens share and will protect the differences we enjoy; indeed, it will map and enable differences and help to ensure they are protected as a common, living inheritance.

  27.  If voters are to become citizens they must have a fundamental Bill of Rights. Without one, they remain powerless to exercise control over those who govern in their name between general elections.

  28.  Even if there were no other reason, relations between separate territorial parliaments and assemblies within the UK demand rules that everyone can understand. The present situation is a formula for perpetual conflict. We believe that the governance of the UK should be the priority for a constitutional convention.

  29.  As a member of a European Union, which with the Charter of Fundamental Rights has continued the process of constitutionalising itself, the need for Britain to be clear about its own self-definition is all the greater. The process of creating a written Constitution will help to foster this.

  30.  Having a written Constitution is like having the vote: in itself it is procedural. It does not guarantee more justice, equality or efficiency or economic growth or any other outcome. People can have the vote and not use it, or feel like voting "none of the above". Nonetheless, as a matter of principle they must have the vote.

  31.  So it is with a written Constitution. It cannot magic into being a society in which citizens participate in and exercise control over government. It will not automatically create a country in which everyone is free from discrimination and the indignities of inequality.

  32.  Our argument is quite simply this: without a new constitutional settlement that has the full consent of the people of these islands none of these other goals will be sustainably achieved.

Alexandra Runswick

Parliamentary and Policy Officer

May 2007

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