Do we need a constitutional convention for the UK?

Ruth Davidson MSP, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives (CC 16)

1. Thank you for inviting me to contribute to the work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee and I can confirm I will be happy to provide oral evidence to the Committee at its planned session in Edinburgh.

2. The UK has experienced a great deal of constitutional change in the last 15 years, not least the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland.

3. There has been further devolution beyond that envisaged at the establishment of the Parliament and Assemblies-notably the Scotland Act 2012 arising from recommendations of the Calman Commission and the 2011 referendum on the direct law-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales and the on-going Silk Commission.

4. It should be noted that the significant additional powers encompassed in the Scotland Act are being transferred over a period of several years and it will not be possible to properly assess their impact before their implementation.

5. It should be further noted that a referendum on Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom is also likely to take place by October 2014 (at the time of writing, no date has been agreed).

6. I believe that any convention or commission must look at the whole of the UK, rather than the distribution of powers between one territory’s decision-making body and the UK Government, as has been the template in the past.

7. All governing structures should be examined for their efficacy and relationship with others. This should include the House of Lords and local authority powers. There is an argument that the centralising tendencies of modern governments have reduced the responsibilities and local decision making of Scotland’s local authorities. Devolution should be about more than transferring certain powers from one parliament to another.

8. The timing and structure of this convention or commission should take account of the referendum on Scottish independence.

9. The Scottish Rate of Income Tax powers are scheduled for introduction in April 2016. This is one of the most significant transfers of power from the UK Government to another decision making body in any part of the UK. While a convention or commission may wish to start its work before this date, it should consider the impact of this transfer as part of its work, particularly if it is a power under consideration for employment by other devolved nations.

10. On a general point, the Calman Commission looked specifically at areas where power could be devolved without impacting upon other nations and regions of the UK. There are many powers which could be devolved to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies which could impact upon other nations and regions of the UK and set one area in competition with others. I think the successes of devolution have been anchored in stability, with few serious disputes, and those areas of contention which have existed being resolved through political responses rather than recourse to legal ones. It is therefore important that any commission or convention assesses the impact of any proposed changes on the whole of the UK as well as its individual constituent parts during the course of its work.

11. For me, the starting point of any convention or commission is to establish the essence of the UK-which essential characteristics define the unitary state and all discussions should flow from there. That established, discussions should move to areas which can be sensibly devolved without harming national unity or political stability and with due regard to our shared history and institutions, and whether such devolution is either desired or would be beneficial.

12. I look forward to meeting with the Committee on 4 October to discuss these issues.

September 2012

Prepared 15th October 2012