Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660-679)


13 MAY 2008

  Q660  Chairman: The other part of the quotation of Professor Hazell's was about what the centre is for once you have created that system.

  Mr Straw: As I say, I also think that is irrelevant. What does he mean by "the centre"? If he means, "What's the Union for?", I have already spelt that out. The British people over many centuries had a choice about whether to go separate ways, and particularly in Scotland there is no indication, notwithstanding the elections for the Scottish Parliament last year, that there is any strong sentiment in favour of independence in Scotland. The British people as a whole believe that you can have multiple identities and that you can, in this case, have profound loyalties to your nation and the culture of your nation as well as to the United Kingdom as a whole. What is the centre for? The centre is to deal with reserve matters and to ensure good governance across the United Kingdom as a whole, if that is what he means by "the centre". I do not quite understand the point of his criticism.

  Q661  Dr Whitehead: In your foreword to the recent The Governance of Britain—Constitutional Renewal White Paper, you stated, "Over the past decade, a major programme of constitutional reform has diffused power away from the centralised state. Devolution has transferred power away from Westminster to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to London's local authorities", and then you said, "but we need to go further". Then, when you actually look at the White Paper, there is nothing whatsoever in it that suggests where we go as far as devolution is concerned.

  Mr Straw: Yes, I see what you are saying.

  Q662  Dr Whitehead: Do you think that is a missed opportunity or is there more to come?

  Mr Straw: No, I think it is poor drafting, for which I take full responsibility. We are talking about the general devolution of power, not only in the sense of devolving power to separate assemblies and parliaments, but devolving power away from Westminster and Whitehall to individual citizens as well, for example, from Whitehall to Parliament there has been a devolution to individual citizens through the great strengthening of their right to take government to court through a developed judicial review and the parallel of rights under the Human Rights Act, so that is what I had in mind, but I accept that the drafting could have been better, and I think it was mine.

  Q663  Dr Whitehead: I imagine you do accept, however, that one of the outcomes of 10 years of devolution certainly has been a renewed focus on what is generally called "the English question".

  Mr Straw: Yes.

  Q664  Dr Whitehead: Indeed you said, I think, on November 7 last year, "The phrase `English votes for English laws' sounds beguilingly simple, but more than a cursory analysis reveals it has been completely unworkable. More than that, it would fatally undermine the Westminster Parliament and unravel the Union". Could you explain what you meant by that?

  Mr Straw: I certainly can. The starting point for this is that devolution is asymmetrical, above all, because of the dominance of England in population and economic terms within the Union. There are very few other countries where you have anything like devolved arrangements or federated arrangements where the different nations or states have such striking imbalances in terms of their population. You could, if you wished, establish an English Parliament, and I happen profoundly to disagree with it, where you could say, "These items are a matter for a Parliament for England and then there is a federal parliament for the United Kingdom to deal with reserve matters". So that is one solution. It certainly does not recommend itself to my Party or to me and I do not think it recommends itself to the major Opposition Party. What all the evidence suggests, including historic evidence, is that, if you go down the route of trying within a single Parliament to have two classes of members and two classes of business, you end up with chaos in terms of the conduct of business and you also end up with chaos in terms of the conduct of the Government. That was a point brought out very tellingly by A J Balfour, Leader of the Conservative Party, when Parliament last looked in detail at this issue during all the interminable debates on the second Irish Reform Bill. Gladstone was under attack by those Members who were not in favour of Irish nationalism who asked him, "These Irish Members will be able to vote on" what were then described as "English issues, and obviously, by extension, Scottish and Welsh issues, GB issues, but we won't be able to vote on our issues", so Gladstone originally proposed this so-called "ins and outs solution" which was exactly the same principle as what is now trailed as "English votes for English laws". Balfour dug in against this and he said on 12 July 1893, "I believe with every single gentleman who has considered this matter that the in and out clause must carry the most serious evils in its train. It must, in the first place, shatter or threaten the ordinary procedure of Parliament with many difficulties, it must, in the second place, lead to constant intrigue with the Irish Members and it must, in the third place, I believe and fear, shatter the "Cabinet system" because how would you run a Cabinet if you never knew whether an issue was going to be identified as English-only or UK as a whole? The reason for that was underlined by Gladstone on the same day who finally said that really this will not run, and he said, "It was impossible or, to use my own old expression, it passed beyond the wit of man to frame any distinctive, thoroughgoing, universal severance between one class of subjects and another", and, the moment you start to look at this, you see the thing unravel. In a way, the best example of this is the higher education fees legislation for England and Wales which was debated rather intensely in, I think, 2004-05, but, around that time, the Scot Nats here had said that they would never vote on English-only issues, but they then said, "Ah, but we are voting on fees for English and Welsh students at English and Welsh universities, notwithstanding the fact that it does not directly affect what goes on in Scottish universities", and here I paraphrase, but I am accurate, it was Alex Salmond who spoke. They said, "What is behind this scheme is a greater reliance by English and Welsh universities on the private sector. Other things being equal, that will reduce the amount of public spending that is spent on English and Welsh universities and, therefore, it will reduce the totality of public spending and, therefore, under the Barnett Formula, the amount available to Scottish universities". Now, I can see the logic and, to a degree, he was correct. It was not obvious from the face of the Bill because the Bill said, "This applies to England and Wales", but that was his case and that was why he broke his own principle, and you would have those arguments at every stage. The other point I would just make, if I may, and I have looked at this with very great care, we do not have to look at the crystal for how this would work, but we can look at it in the book, and I entirely endorse the view of Sir Malcolm Rifkind who said in the FT in July of 2006, "This proposal of English votes for English laws is creating two classes of MP. It would be a constitutional abortion", he said. "Either you are a Member of Parliament or you are not. If we were to go ahead with this, you would have 100 MPs and clearly those from Wales and Northern Ireland for second-class Legislatures". The other point I would just make, because it is a rather important one, is this: that behind this suggestion is the implicit idea of a huge Party imbalance between the Conservatives, who, it is thought, always dominated England, and the Labour Party who can only form a government because of their disproportionate representation in Scotland and Wales. I am very happy, Mr Chairman, to provide you with this table which goes back to 1945, but, when the Conservatives do gain proportionately more seats in England than they currently do in Scotland and Wales, although it is worth adding parenthetically that in the 1950s the Conservatives won half the seats in Scotland and half the votes and they were the dominant Party and there is no particular reason why that should not happen again—

  Q665  Mr Tyrie: We would agree with that, Jack!

  Mr Straw: Well, you ought to do something about it rather than finding a dodge around it which smacks of defeat, but anyway that is all in parenthesis!

  Q666  Chairman: This is becoming a very long sentence!

  Mr Straw: I was going to say that, if you look at the record, when the Labour Government has had a working majority here, it has also had an absolute majority of English MPs and the occasions when we have had a majority of MPs for Great Britain, but not an overall majority of English MPs has been when the majority, in any event, has been very small, like six in 1951, minus in February 1974, three in 1964 and so on, and in those cases, in any event, the prospects of getting controversial legislation or legislation in your face, for example, to an English constituency are, in practice, very limited and no sensible government tries.

  Q667  Dr Whitehead: Could I be clear that what you appear to be leading us towards is a suggestion that either one might envisage an entirely separate English Parliament with then a UK federal Parliament sat above it or no change in the present asymmetrically devolved arrangements with one Parliament dealing one way or another with a combination of UK-wide laws, England-only laws and what one might call "hybrid laws"?

  Mr Straw: Dr Whitehead, I am wholly opposed to an English Parliament and I happen to believe that, if you went down that route, because England is so dominant, there would be little advantage seen by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for maintaining the Union.

  Q668  Chairman: Why does that follow?

  Mr Straw: Well, because I think the argument would be, "Well, what exactly is in it for us?" I may be wrong about that, but all I would say is that, although I am opposed to it, it is coherent, it has a logic to it, a symmetry to it and you could do that, and I think the Liberal Democrats have from time to time proposed it.

  Q669  Chairman: Not in my lifetime!

  Mr Straw: Well, that is fine in that case because I sometimes hear that they talk about a federal system for the United Kingdom.

  Q670  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Straw: Well, I do not know how it would work otherwise, maybe through elected assemblies. We have tried that one. As I say, I recognise its logical coherence even if, as I say, I am opposed to it in principle and it would have indirect consequences.

  Q671  Mr Tyrie: So, just to clarify, you are opposed to it in principle because you think that the Welsh and Scottish communities would conclude that there is nothing in it for them? Is that correct?

  Mr Straw: No, I am opposed to it in principle, full stop, because I happen to think that the current arrangements are better for everybody.

  Q672  Mr Tyrie: Surely, the principle is based on some idea or thought.

  Mr Straw: Because I think the current arrangements are to the advantage of every section of the United Kingdom. That is my view.

  Q673  Chairman: None of our witnesses from Scotland and Wales has suggested to us what you are now suggesting to us, that they would see an English Parliament as a threat to the Union. On the contrary, almost all the witnesses from Scotland, when asked this kind of question, from whatever Party they come, have said, "It doesn't matter how from England they operate it".

  Mr Straw: Well, that may be their view, but I take a different view.

  Q674  Mr Tyrie: Since we are trying to establish what your view is, Jack, because you appear to be alone on this point—

  Mr Straw: Not for the first time!

  Q675  Mr Tyrie:—is it because you think there would be nothing in it for the Scots and the Welsh if we had an English Parliament and also a federal United Kingdom?

  Mr Straw: I think, over time, what it would lead to, is not my principal reason for opposing it, let me say, but I just happen to think it would be a consequence.

  Q676  Chairman: So what is your principal reason?

  Mr Straw: My principal reason is that I see no good case for having a separate Parliament for England. I think the current arrangements work satisfactorily for England. I think the bigger issue within England is to see a degree of further devolution, as we have achieved in London, to local government units which does not in any sense undermine the integrity of the English nation or of the United Kingdom. I thought personally that there would be general support, for example, in the North East and the North West for elected assemblies, but it turns out not to be the case, so we have to go down other routes to the idea of elected mayors and so on, but I think that is the way that you deal with that. I am as in touch with my English voters as, I dare say, those who represent English voters here are and there is no serious sentiment for an English Parliament and I think people are content overall with the current arrangements. There is a separate issue which, I certainly concede, is raised from time to time about relative spending in Scotland and Wales, but that is a separate matter.

  Q677  Chairman: But London involved significant devolution of previously centrally held powers—

  Mr Straw: It did, yes.

  Q678  Chairman:—in both policing and transport, presumably based on the assumption that the area of London covered by the Mayor was a sufficient one for these powers to work coherently over that area, so are you arguing that that is an approach we ought to be looking further at, whether we should identify local government units which are of a sufficient area or coherence to have further powers devolved to?

  Mr Straw: Mr Chairman, I used to argue that because I thought there would be a public welcome for regional assemblies in the North East and North West and Yorkshire.

  Q679  Chairman: You said "local government".

  Mr Straw: Yes, but regional assemblies would not be taking over legislative functions. They would have taken over local government functions, including over time over the police. But anyway, it became clear from the vote in the referendum in the North East, and you know the area, where we had always judged there was the greatest appetite for this, that people did not want it. So we have to move on and see what people do want. In terms of greater democratic involvement in the police, you can do that both within the current police service boundaries and indeed at a more local level of the basic command units, and there are suggestions around for that.

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