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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Burton: My Lords, I might spend more time here if I moved. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred to a document which stated that the time was not right for devolution. I believe he was quoting the Prime Minister but I am not sure of that. The time will never be right for breaking up this great country of Britain.

9.35 p.m.

Lord Bancroft: My Lords, we have had some notable speeches today, especially the four openers. We have also been reminded that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, enlightened us this morning from the Isle of Dogs. I warn noble Lords that my approach is that of the mechanic rather than the philosopher.

I begin with a truly crunching cliche. Even the poached eye of an aged buffer can see that there is no such thing as the status quo. You either go forward or you go back. People and events will see to that. So constitutional change of some kind is inevitable. My thesis is that it should be organic change planned at a digestible rate. It should seek, if at all possible, to carry the broad consent of the majority of our citizens and main party agreement.

Whichever party, or combination of parties, wins the next general election, there will be constitutional change of some sort--depending on the result, either the minimum or the maximum. I wish to comment on the latter, however remote it may appear to some of us, largely on the mechanics, though touching lightly on the merits.

The agenda is formidable. It demands the lifetime of at least two Parliaments. As we have been reminded, the main items are the return of powers to local government, a strategic elected authority for London, devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some English regions, reform of the powers and composition of the House of Commons, including possibly the method of election to it, reform of the powers and composition of this House, human rights legislation and freedom of information legislation; and all that in the context of an enlarging and changing European Community. It is a vast programme. If it does not frighten its supporters, by God it frightens me.

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As a career non-politician, I hesitate to proffer stale buns to the experienced members of that admirable profession who adorn this House. Even less would I dare to instruct my metaphorical grandmothers in the tricks of sucking eggs. But I suggest that constitutional reform is the greatest absorbent of parliamentary time known to man. So if a government were to be brave or, in my view, foolhardy enough to attempt the long agenda, they must adopt an orderly approach to the interlocking items. They should early on cost out their priority items in parliamentary time. Unlike Prufrock, they should measure out their life not with coffee spoons but in parliamentary days. They should draft out at least their first two Queen's Speeches now and count up the cost in parliamentary days.

Let us remember that the time-eating constitutional Bills will have to compete for parliamentary time with programme Bills, some bread and butter, and many others far sexier politically--health, education, law and order, transport and the environment. One lesson I have learnt over the years is that constitutional Bills tend to appeal to academic party zealots, to many Scotsmen and Irishmen, but to relatively few other voters. I say fearfully to my noble friend Lord Elis-Thomas, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and others that I am only half Welsh.

In that light I put forward three propositions. One is to set up a strong Royal Commission on the constitution. It would be designed to last for the lifetime of at least two Parliaments. It would be charged with making recommendations which would be enacted serially, as they were formulated, debated and approved. That would secure the genuine benefits of incremental and mutually informed change. It might also winnow out the chaff. There is a lot of it about. For particular items, consideration by the Royal Commission might be preceded by meetings of party leaders, as suggested by the admirable Constitution Unit, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe.

The second proposition is that some parts of constitutional Bills must be taken off the Floor of the other place. Historically, that has been their abattoir. There would also need to be organisational changes in Whitehall.

The third proposition is that everyone concerned with constitution-making should marinade themselves for some weeks, if not months, in the excellent reports of the Constitution Unit, those already published and those still to come.

I end by selecting for brief comment three items on the long agenda. I hope that I am not straying too far into tomorrow's pastures, but the dividing hedgerow is rather straggly. I strongly believe that any reforms must take as early items: first, the return of powers to local authorities; and, secondly, a strategic elected authority for London. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, on that.

My third item is the reform of the powers and composition of our own Chamber. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and others said, its composition is intellectually indefensible. Its necessary reform, politics apart, is the thinnish icing on the top of

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a substantial cake. There are strong arguments for dealing with powers before dealing with composition and for not proceeding, as proposed by the Labour Party, in two stages. To take the latter course would, on every shred of historical evidence, leave the second Chamber as an appointed House--some might call it a House of patronage or "jobbery"--for at least a generation, perhaps more. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, made that point.

I conclude by saying that for a lifetime I have had a detached love-hate relationship with all three parties. I think I can see how politically beguiling it is to go straight for the jugular and abolish the hereditary principle in this place. Having been the first Labour Leader in history to rewrite his own party's constitution--and having lost friends on the Left in the process--it must be tempting for Mr. Blair to follow his instincts and, coincidentally, re-establish his credibility with the Left by rewriting the country's constitution and banishing hereditary peers from this place at one go early on. But this cheerful, perhaps even engaging brutality is not the right way to achieve stable and robust constitutional reform. Consensus building and suppleness, and perhaps a degree of desirable elegance, are also needed. I genuinely hope that in the end more soundly based second-thoughts will command the field.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Our constitution is unique. It has been the foundation upon which we have prospered and grown as a nation over many hundreds of years. It has evolved with the instincts of the British people, and it has served us well. Arguably, in these times of general uncertainty and increasing global competition, we need the certainty and political stability that it provides just as much as ever. However, the very constitutional arrangements that have served us so well are threatened with great upheaval by the radical plans for constitutional change proposed by the parties opposite.

I want to follow the argument of my noble friends Lord Dean of Harptree and Lord Bowness. I want to address briefly the one aspect of the constitutional debate which I fear could have a particularly detrimental effect on the government of England; that is, the proposals to establish regional government in England.

At the heart of any regional policy or strategy there must be a respect for the diversity of communities. It is a fact that in our counties and shires, and in our towns and cities, there exists broad diversity of both an economic and a social nature. The policy of this Government is founded on a respect for that diversity. We have encouraged diversity in many areas. Take, for example, the reorganisation of local government, which involved wide-scale public consultation, to ensure that local authorities reflect the wishes of local people more effectively; and take education, where a great deal of power has been decentralised to schools and parents.

The Labour Party's plans for regional government stand in stark contrast to ours. It intends to impose a system of regional government on the 10 administrative

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regions of England. Each region would have to establish a regional chamber composed of nominated councillors. Those regions in which there was a popular demand would be able to elevate their regional chambers into fully elected regional assemblies. As a result, England could find itself divided up into regional units in the same way as many European countries are. It would be an England of regions in a Europe of regions--and would have, as a direct result, weaker and more fragmented government.

The move to regional government would be a costly exercise first and foremost. The initial establishment of regional chambers would involve considerable start-up costs. There would be the need for offices and administrative staff, for researchers and secretaries. Councillors would require expenses, and members of a regional assembly would require salaries.

However, Labour's expensive regional chambers and authorities are based on the desire and perceived need to build and develop regional interests and identities which just do not exist. People from Surrey, Sussex or Kent do not call themselves "South Easterners", just as people from Cumbria or Manchester do not describe themselves as "North Westerners"--and nor will they. Indeed, why should people living in Cumbria have to look to a regional chamber or assembly based in either Manchester or Liverpool to govern their affairs and hatch up grand regional economic projects for them when their needs may be completely different from those in other parts of the administrative region?

Labour's unelected regional chambers would be given considerable powers. In each one of the 10 regions the regional chambers to be created would have the power to,

    "co-ordinate economic development strategy and help to establish regional development agencies",
whether the people living in the counties, cities and towns of that region liked it or not. Business would find itself entangled by yet another layer of government and bureaucracy. Is this the way to go about regenerating deprived areas of the country? I believe it is not.

The establishment of regional chambers and possibly regional assemblies poses an even greater danger to the very cohesion of England itself. I would like the House to imagine one possible scenario. Let us imagine that the West Midlands votes in a referendum to convert its regional chamber into a full regional assembly, while the East Midlands, on the other hand, decides not to. Although Labour has not stated exactly and explicitly what powers a regional assembly might have, let us say that it takes responsibility for education, health and transport matters in its region. The new West Midlands regional assembly would therefore be responsible for all education, health and transport policy in the West Midlands. In the East Midlands, however, education, health and transport policy would still be decided at Westminster.

If such a scenario were to arise--and it is perfectly possible under Labour's proposals--would MPs from the West Midlands still be allowed to legislate on education, health and transport matters for people of the

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East Midlands? If they were still allowed to do so, would this be a fair settlement? Would it not generate resentment in the East Midlands? Would we find region pitted against region? Is this not an English version of the as yet still unanswered West Lothian question posed all those years ago by Tam Dalyell in another place? Perhaps we could call it the West Midlands question.

Unless these questions are answered, regional government for England would be a disaster and would be a real threat to the continuation of our living and evolving constitution.

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