Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680-698)


13 MAY 2008

  Q680  Alun Michael: If I can just ask a supplementary question on the point you made about the regional issues in England, you referred, I think, three times to the vote in the North East having suggested that there was no enthusiasm, but, in the case of Wales of course, the referendum in 1979 was pretty comprehensively lost to the chagrin of those of us who had wanted to see that proceed, but it turned out to be much less than a generation before the issue was back on the agenda, indeed it was within a decade. Why do you think that the vote in the North East is so conclusive that this issue is closed for ever and a day?

  Mr Straw: Nothing is closed for ever and a day, but I think that, judging particularly by what I know about sentiment in the North West, people have moved on from there and they are more interested in ideas of strengthening the existing local government units and the development of what have been called "city regions" based round, in our case, Manchester and Liverpool and then sub-regions or city regions in part of Lancashire. It is partly to do with identity, and the big difference, Mr Michael, between Scotland and Wales and parts of England is that there is this very, very powerful historic and cultural identity in Wales and with Scotland which does not have a direct parallel within parts of England. For sure, people are Geordies or they are Lancastrians and so on, but it is not as powerful a loyalty.

  Q681  Alun Michael: So the comparison would be in the case of London, which of course is much larger in terms of population than either Wales or Scotland, that it is the identity which makes the difference, is it?

  Mr Straw: Also, do not forget that there was a big democratic deficit in London because from the 1880s there had been county councils as well as borough councils in London, the LCC and Middlesex County Council until 1964 and then the Greater London Council. Then, post the 1986 abolition of the Greater London Council, you had a great many functions in London which could not be operated at a borough level, a great overlay of inter-borough arrangements or, to pick up the Chairman's point, central government standing in the shoes of what should have been a tier of local government, and it plainly was not working. When I became Home Secretary, you were my Minister of State, so you will recall this, I was continuing a role which had been going on since 1829 that I, as Home Secretary, was the police authority for London. It was a job which no Home Secretary could do effectively, though I did it to the best of my ability. That was why I was very keen on the police arrangements in the London Government Act which did not lead to the total devolution of policing, but essentially to a partnership.

  Q682  Dr Whitehead: The picture that you are setting out for us as far as 10 years on from devolution is, as it were, the continuation of an asymmetric Parliament with the West Lothian question, I guess, parked in the car park for perpetually unanswered questions and a suggestion that local government may well, as it were, suck up some of the democratic deficit which, by your own statement a moment ago, applied in London, but also could equally be regarded as applying in English regions. Is that the formula or are there further plans which you think may tidy that up?

  Mr Straw: The prior point about the so-called "West Lothian question" is whether or not you accept that the United Kingdom's makeup in terms of its component parts is asymmetrical because of the huge dominance of England in terms of resources and of population and actually the resilience of its economy as well. If you do as I do and accept that, in the end, English Members can determine anything in the Union and, if we got together, we could completely dominate the Union if we wished, if we had a common purpose, as it were, against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Certain consequences go with that, I am perfectly comfortable with those consequences because ultimately, whether a particular constitutional settlement is acceptable to all the peoples within it is not a matter of arithmetic, it is a matter of sentiment. I happen to think that this arrangement of the United Kingdom has served all parts of the United Kingdom very well for three centuries and can endure, provided each part of it accepts, as it were, a degree of self-restraint.

  Dr Whitehead: Is not part of the consequence of an asymmetric settlement that parts of the asymmetry may decide they may quite like to be independent from time to time, and do you think maybe a referendum on that might be appropriate?

  Q683  Chairman: Or was Wendy right?

  Mr Straw: You asked me about the official position on a referendum. Well, I am unpersuaded that now is the time for a referendum in Scotland.

  Q684  Mr Turner: What about England?

  Mr Straw: What about England? Well, Mr Turner, independence from what—from Scotland?

  Q685  Mr Turner: From the United Kingdom.

  Mr Straw: Well, I am against that. As I say, my constituents are very much in favour of the United Kingdom. I get many, many questions about all subjects under the sun in the town centre of Blackburn, but having a referendum to declare independence from Scotland and Wales is not one of them.

  Q686  Mr Tyrie: But, just to be clear, you disagree with Wendy Alexander that there should be a referendum?

  Mr Straw: I have stated my position and the Government's; we are unpersuaded about a referendum.

  Q687  Mr Tyrie: So you disagree with Wendy Alexander's view?

  Mr Straw: Mr Tyrie, I have stated the Government's position. If you want to compare and contrast my remarks with somebody else's outside this room, please do.

  Q688  Mr Tyrie: So I think we can take it that you do not agree with Wendy Alexander's view.

  Mr Straw: Take whatever you want away from this, Mr Tyrie!

  Q689  Mr Tyrie: I think we have made some progress there. Could I go back to the Barnett Formula. Actually, what Lord Barnett said was that the system that he introduced "cannot be right". Do you agree with that?

  Mr Straw: No, I do not. It is a system, and I happen to have his words in front of me or I had his words in front of me—

  Q690  Mr Tyrie: Well, let me read it to you.

  Mr Straw: No, I have got it here. None of these systems is perfect, but, let me say, nor are the alternatives, as those of us will recall the effects of needs- and resources-based formulae, and all of them produce problems as well as potential solutions. For all its imperfections, it is worth putting on the record that the Barnett Formula was regarded as good enough, not only for the Labour Government when Joel Barnett was an important part of it, but throughout the period of the Conservative Government for 18 years. I know the points that are made about it say that it is not the case that it is set in concrete, the relative shares of public spending shift as the population shifts, and it is also the case, and I had these figures earlier, that, for example, the growth of spending for health in England is significantly above the growth in spending in Scotland just at the moment because the Scots have decided to do different things.

  Q691  Chairman: They get the money and it is up to them what they decide to do.

  Mr Straw: Sure, but, when my constituents say, "Well, they are spending money on" whatever they are spending it on, I say, "Yes, and it takes less time to wait for a hospital bed in England than it does in Scotland, and NHS spending in England is rising at 4% in real terms each year for the next three years compared to 1.5% in Scotland".

  Q692  Chairman: We are quite familiar with this. I think Mr Tyrie is trying to establish your views on the Barnett point.

  Mr Straw: Well, my views are that, if your Committee comes forward with a formula, well, obviously it would be considered, I am simply saying that the history of local government spending in England, Mr Tyrie, going back to the endless reviews that took place in the 1970s and on and, famously, the ones that the Conservative Party followed in the 1986 White Paper on local government spending which led to the poll tax, there are no easy solutions to this problem of the allocation of resources, which is also associated with the 1986 solution, and how you raise the money.

  Q693  Mr Tyrie: I am not asking you whether the system has survived the trials and tribulations of 30 years of politics under different governments; there are lots of things that have done that which we would think could be improved upon. I am asking you whether you think that the Barnett Formula is right. Do you agree with Lord Barnett that it is not right?

  Mr Straw: No, I do not agree with Lord Barnett that it is not right. It is right and there is no point dismissing, Mr Tyrie, 30 years' experience because, if it was as wrong as I think you are implying, then there is quite a large question about why the devil the Conservative Government over 18 years chose to follow it. These issues, these formulae, it is not really a question of right or wrong—

  Q694  Mr Tyrie: I am not trying to make a party-political point, I am just trying to elicit from you what the Government think about Lord Barnett's conclusion that this current system is not right and needs to be fundamentally reformed.

  Mr Straw: I both regard Lord Barnett as a friend and have very great respect for him, but it does not mean necessarily that I would agree with him on every issue. The issue of these formulae, it is not a matter of right and wrong, it is a matter of balance. There is no right or wrong to the needs and resources formula in the 1980s, the 1990s or now, it is a matter of where the balance of advantage and pain lies. Until a better formula can be proposed which has the advantage of transparency, which Barnett also has, and it also has this self-regulating element within it in terms of shifts in the population, then it is appropriate to follow it.

  Q695  Mr Tyrie: Is the Government engaged in looking for such a formula?

  Mr Straw: I answered that question, I think,-I am not making a point here-, before you came in to say that the Treasury is going to publish factual papers about Barnett in the next few months and Calman is looking at issues of financial accountability and then we will consider the matter further.

  Q696  Chairman: So is the Treasury paper intended to enable a discussion to take place with government about whether there is or is not a better basis, or is it intended to, as it were, close the matter down by telling us incontrovertible facts that will please us?

  Mr Straw: Mr Chairman, it does not lie in the Government's hands to close issues down if people want to talk about them.

  Chairman: It does as to whether to participate in discussions.

  Q697  Mr Tyrie: Are you opening up a public debate as so often the Government appears to want to do, but does not want to do just yet?

  Mr Straw: Mr Tyrie, the Government does not need to open up a public debate about this—

  Q698  Chairman: You often do.

  Mr Straw:—because there is one. There is a public debate about this, so we do not need to open one up. It is not one of these things where, you know, we worry about stimulating discussion about them; we have just had an hour-plus about it. The paper itself, Mr Chairman, is intended to be a factual analysis of the system as is, but I am quite sure that they will stimulate further the debate.

  Chairman: Can I thank Mr Gallagher for his help and we now move on to the other side of your responsibilities.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 24 May 2009