Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680-698)|
MP AND JIM
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
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 whatfrom 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
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
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
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.