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10.23 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, London must indeed be fortunate. It may not have an elected body but it has a Cabinet committee to look after its interests and a Minister appointed to look after it. What greater influence could a city have at the centre of power? The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, told us that all is well with London and that there is no demand for change. Yet, according to London First, an organisation set up to promote London and supported by many of the capital's leading businesses and financial institutions, London is losing out. Despite those wonderful connections at the centre of power, London First is concerned about the lack of a strong and effective voice to champion London's causes and, indeed, to make a case for London with government and abroad. In addition, London First conducted a survey which showed overwhelming support for an elected city-wide authority, so we can expect proposals for an elected French-style mayor or an American-style governor, whose task it will be to promote the interests of the city instead of having a Cabinet Minister.

Why should the city want its own elected champion? As other noble Lords have said, the reason is that people no longer trust central government to be fair and

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impartial. They feel alienated and the Cabinet committees operate in secret. People observe the regional inequalities and conclude that they must look after their own interests.

Central government should encourage them to do that because those regional inequalities are a drag on our national competitiveness. The wealth of the nation depends on the prosperity of its constituent parts. The Government recognise that and in last month's competitiveness White Paper it was reported that the underlying levels of manufacturing productivity vary greatly among the regions, as does participation in education and training.

In true centralised style, the Government have told the regions what they should be doing about their shortcomings not through their elected representatives but through the myriad of quangos and central government sponsored organisations such as TECs, Business Links and the DTI local offices.

In Lancashire alone there are something like 64 different economic development organisations all receiving public money. That excludes the local agencies under the umbrella of the TECs. The Regional Policy Commission, under the chairmanship of Bruce Millan, reported that it is not unusual for areas to have more than 40 bodies involved in regional development activities, many of them competing and overlapping.

Perhaps all those regional organisations are a job-creation project in themselves. But the inevitable overlap and duplication must be a terrible waste of money, time and effort. Lack of focus must make it more difficult to plan and because they compete for funding many of those organisations work against each other when in fact they should be co-operating.

For example, the TECs and the FE colleges are both competing for the same training money. Would it not be more effective and efficient for them to co-operate? But, no, the Government create obstacles to co-operation in the name of competition because that is the way that central government keeps control. The resources and effort which go into such unnecessary competition in order to maintain that kind of top-down government are enormous.

As my noble friend Lord Irvine said, that is the frustration of centralisation. It is also disheartening for those involved and I agree with my noble friend Lord Plant that it is a major cause of low morale, part of the feel-bad factor. It is demeaning, too, because it is as though people locally cannot be trusted to get together to agree on what are their priorities.

In business circles, trust is being much discussed at present. Quite simply, if business partners, managers, suppliers, customers and workers can trust each other more, the costs of doing business are lower and things get done more quickly. Such a social infrastructure can only be built up locally and that ethos facilitates investment and progress.

Conversely, the centralisation of power, with a lack of trust offered to regions and cities, weakens the country's civic structure and the economy suffers. As my noble friend Lady Lockwood told us, participation in local decision-making, whether it be in economic matters, education or running local activities has become fairly

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irrelevant because there has been so little scope for shaping those activities to the service of local needs and ambitions. Is it really appropriate for central government to intervene down to the level of individual companies? It seems to me that, although the Government talk of local partnerships, those partnerships are actually being driven by central government.

Noble Lords can imagine how demeaning and disheartening it is to be removed from local authority control and given operational independence but then to become completely dependent on a national quango for funding. That is exactly what has happened to the colleges of further education. I have never been on a quango, but I imagine that that is why my noble friend Lord Irvine referred to quangos as a travesty of democracy.

Let us take, for example, the Employment Service. It is a nationally administered government organisation with a strong local and regional presence, but there is no local and regional influence on its activities. The service is there to carry out the wishes of central government; the role of local government is really peripheral. What central government should be doing is providing a stable framework of regulation, standards and support. Those standards, set down by central government, are essential to avoid social exclusion. The support should be in the form of intervention which does not discriminate between specific businesses but which helps all businesses to meet those standards and objectives.

At this late hour, noble Lords will be pleased that the point I now wish to make is simple and obvious. Centralised government is a drag on the economy. Our competitiveness as a nation is the sum of its parts. The Government's own competitiveness White Paper has shown how variable the regions are: that variation is partly the result of many years of centralised government. The Government's proposed cure is to apply more of the same medicine yet more vigorously. My proposal is to change the medicine to more democratic regional government and bring government closer to the people.

10.31 p.m.

Lord Ellenborough: My Lords, after 17 or 18 years in opposition, noble Lords opposite may just wonder why Labour Governments have never lasted beyond the lifetime of a single Parliament; or, at any rate not beyond six years. I have no doubt that there are many reasons, but I suggest that a major one is their obsession with constitutional reform. I recollect that the Wilson Government of the late 1960s came very badly unstuck over the reform of the House of Lords, despite having a majority of over a hundred. Then the Callaghan Government was effectively brought down, not so much by the winter of discontent but by devolution. I should have thought that any future Labour Government--that is, if one comes about--would be well advised to hasten very slowly towards those two objectives, before both feet get firmly encased in concrete.

I have been privileged to be a Member of your Lordships' House for a long time. I would dearly have liked to have taken part in tomorrow's debate; but,

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unfortunately, I cannot be present for the whole day so I put my name down to speak today. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will allow me to make a few remarks on the subject of this House before I say a few words on devolution.

During the long time that I have been here, I have been privileged to witness how your Lordships' House has gradually, but successfully, evolved. Indeed, it has always worked very well, with very little public criticism. However, that is not to say that I would not have some changes in mind. It may surprise some noble Lords to know that I took part in the proceedings on the Life Peerages Bill introduced by Viscount Simon in l953 and that I spoke in favour of it. Therefore, I have been supporting life peers before they were introduced in this House a few years later, so I feel that I can look any life peer in the face.

However, I also recollect that Mr. Asquith said early in the century that reform of the House of Lords brooks no delay. So why has that taken nearly a century? I would suggest that that is because it is a non-issue; so why make it one? Perhaps it is an issue at smart dinner parties in Islington but it certainly is not an issue on the Tube or in the high street. I should like to say more but I fear that already the forecast finishing time of this debate of 10.20 p.m. has been exceeded. I must say my few words on the dreaded subject of devolution.

My view is that any claims that devolution would strengthen the Union are completely bogus, as by weakening the Westminster Parliament the reverse would be true. It would encourage nationalists and anger English taxpayers, and of course encourage the European federalists who want a Europe of little regions as opposed to nation states.

What I particularly dislike is what the Labour Party has in mind, which is in effect a rewriting of the relationship between England, Scotland and Wales to the advantage of the smaller two and to the disadvantage of England. What is so misleading is the impression that is given that, particularly in the case of the Scots, they can gain a Parliament in Edinburgh to run their affairs and yet lose none of their power or influence at Westminster.

There is of course considerable dissatisfaction in Scotland with Westminster--there is no doubt about that--but this serious problem is being addressed energetically by the Secretary of State for Scotland, by means of a greatly enhanced role for the Scottish Grand Committee and by other measures.

I recall in 1979 the conventional wisdom was that there would be big majorities in favour of devolution. But in the event the voting was even in Scotland and four to one against in Wales. No doubt a vote tomorrow would ensure a substantial "yes" vote but there will not be a vote tomorrow. If and when it comes to the crunch, as it would in a referendum campaign, and one is faced with the stark reality, it is a different matter. It may well be that the people of Scotland and Wales would again have the good sense to frustrate these dangerous half-baked notions, especially if a referendum is to be held prior to the detailed legislation, which is surely rather akin to offering shares in a new company before seeing the prospectus.

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The massive disadvantages and risks in devolution would become apparent. Even now, as rather belatedly Conservative opposition to devolution is moving into higher gear, this has already caused a major tactical retreat by the Labour Party. There have been two U-turns, on the subject of a referendum and on whether there are to be tax-raising powers. A referendum would not make these plans any less dangerous.

It certainly should not be forgotten that a future Labour Government have pledged themselves to fight hard to ensure an affirmative vote on the tax-raising powers--the "tartan tax". No Scottish parliament will be satisfied if it does not have tax-raising powers. The threat of tax increases would inevitably frighten away investment, jobs would be lost and public enthusiasm would wane as before.

There is then the unanswered West Lothian question on which much has been said this afternoon. My prediction is the next U-turn will be a reduction in the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs at Westminster. That has already been conceded by the independent Constitution Unit. I think I am right in saying that the Liberal Democrat party feels the same way. Already Scotland and Wales are heavily over-represented at Westminster. It is no good hiding behind the absurd notion of unwanted, completely rootless and artificially fabricated English regions. These would be a bureaucratic nightmare. There would be another tier of professional politicians. Without tax-raising and legislative powers, it would be quite meaningless in terms of equitable democratic representation.

Nor, if I may say so, does the charge of inconsistency levelled at the Government by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, and others carry weight regarding the proposed setting up of an assembly in Northern Ireland. This argument ignores reality. There have been years of strife in Northern Ireland. Only the Scots are after Scotland; only the Welsh are after Wales. But, regrettably, a minority of people in Northern Ireland wish to become citizens of a foreign country which has a claim in its constitution to Northern Ireland itself. A further point is that surely no Northern Ireland MP can ever realistically become a senior member, or a member at all, of any government in the UK. At present all the major local government powers for the Province are exercised by the United Kingdom Government. The position is completely different.

I hope that the Government will stand up for the Union in all parts of the UK, and that includes Northern Ireland. I have no connection with Northern Ireland, but we should not forget that there is a loyal majority community in Northern Ireland. One tends to forget about the majority community in Northern Ireland, which seems sadly sidelined at times. Any lack of conviction on the part of the Government towards one part of the United Kingdom does not bode well for the remainder of the United Kingdom.

10.41 p.m.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, it falls to me yet again to be tail-end Charlie. I never know whether the usual

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channels think of keeping the best to the end or whether my contribution is not worth waiting for. I hope that it may steer somewhere between the two extremes.

I wish to say a few words on tax, structures of government and democracy, and representation. It is intriguing that the only precedent of which I am aware for the Scottish Grand Committee perambulating around various parts of Scotland taking Ministers in tow with it is the practice of Queen Elizabeth I in taking her entourage and court around the various stately homes of England. That accomplished two things. First, it made the scions of those families feel very important. But, secondly, it impoverished them because they had to provide victuals for the travelling court. While I am sure that the Scottish Grand Committee does not seek to impoverish the various places it visits, I believe that part of the exercise by the Government is to make people think that they are important. I am not sure whether that is the reality of the way this Government think of people.

I read the speech delivered last week by the Prime Minister. One section interested me. He talked of strengthening the independence of individuals by reducing taxation, and encouraging home ownership and private pensions. The encouragement of home ownership in the past few years has resulted in negative equity for a large number of people. The mis-selling of private pensions has resulted in a significant number of people having worse provision for their pensions.

The real problem, however, which is fundamental to the political analysis is the Government's postulation that they have reduced taxation, that they are the party of low taxation. The Financial Statement and Budget Report 1996-97, introduced by Michael Jack on 28th November 1995, gives the latest figures I could find. Paragraph 4.17 shows a chart of the total taxes and social security contributions as a percentage of GDP. Most people would recognise that as a measure of the amount of taxation that the British people are required to contribute. In the period between 1974 and 1979, the average was 35.6 per cent. In the period between 1980 and 1995, the average was 37.41 per cent. My arithmetic suggests that, far from reducing taxation, the Government have levied a higher rate of taxation on the British people than the last Labour Government. In only three out of the 16 years in question was the percentage tax take less than the last Labour Government's average. In 11 out of those 16 Tory years taxes were higher than the highest of the last Labour Government. Unfortunately, we start with a big lie that the Tories are the party of low taxation.

I turn to the structures of government and democracy. I am pleased to count among my ancestors one of the first MPs for Plymouth in the Reform Parliament of 1832. In the days before 1832, whole towns and cities were unrepresented in Parliament. I shall not go through all the details of the changes over the years, it is far too late and I do not wish to detain the House. However, over those years we can see the development of democracy in government at various levels. In the mid-1970s, for example, in Manchester, where I live, there was a city council with elected representatives, levying local taxes. There was the county of

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Greater Manchester, a regional authority, levying a precept. At the UK national level there was the UK Parliament levying taxes with elected representatives. At the continental level there was the European Union, and at the global level the United Nations.

Unfortunately, from 1979 onwards, that representation and the equivalent levying of taxes were eroded and destroyed. The Greater Manchester county was abolished in 1985 by the Government. The ability of the citizens of that metropolitan conurbation, not only to elect representatives who could speak for the whole of Greater Manchester but also to levy taxes and spend money, was destroyed.

In addition, the development of the European Union which could be a powerful engine for progress has been stultified and halted, not just by this Government's actions but by the monetarist philosophy. The Maastricht Treaty has been mentioned this evening and it was obviously not acceptable, as a vehicle to move forward, to the vast majority of the European peoples.

If one takes the development of the United Nations, there is a need to try to democratise that institution to enable equal representation. But this Government have persistently refused to consider change because, as a result of events 50 years ago, this country has a seat at the top table. That is unwarranted.

I mentioned the problems of taxation and the way in which the Conservative Party has wrongly portrayed itself as the party of low taxation. But one thinks of other events that have taken place over the past 17 years. We have seen an erosion of our manufacturing base and a decline in our living standards compared, for example, to those of Italy. Twenty years ago our per capita income and standard of living were higher than those of Italy. Over the last period of this Government, the Italian standard of living has surpassed ours.

One thing we have done over the years is endeavour to ensure that those people who are our representatives--at whatever level, district, county, national or continental--are elected by roughly equal numbers of people. So each representative in those forums has equal weight. That is a very important element to remember: that not only do we value every one of the electorate equally, but each member of a democratically elected forum has an equal voice. I do not think that the talk of proportional representation that we have heard will help to continue that very powerful base for our concept of democracy.

It is rather late. I had intended to say a few words about the constitution of this place. But one of the difficulties in Members of this House contributing to that debate is the risk of being charged with having a vested interest.

Finally, in regard to a written constitution, I am always a little suspicious when I hear lawyers arguing for a written constitution. I am not sure what a written constitution will do for the mass of the unemployed in this country. The massed ranks on the Government Front Bench say, "Hear, hear", but they are not doing anything for the massed ranks of the unemployed either. On that note, I end my remarks.

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10.54 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I am astonished at my own virtue and the virtue of everyone who has sat through this marathon. The Government Chief Whip mistimed the debate by an hour. I have enjoyed many of the speeches. I must admit to feeling some slight irritation when we were already running an hour late and a certain noble Lord stood up and said that he was terribly sorry, he had an important engagement and had to leave--and then spoke for 14 minutes. But on the whole the debate has been most enjoyable. I greatly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, and I enjoyed that made by my own leader. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, was not satisfactory. He said everything that I had intended to say but a great deal better, which is always infuriating. He gave an edge to it.

I must say that the speeches from the opposite side have been very, very worrying. The Tory Party is obviously so depressed it is not true. Every single one of their speeches spelled gloom and the break up of the United Kingdom, with terrible things about to happen. Obviously, they know that there is going to be a Labour Government; otherwise they would not be so gloomy. Of course, we may all be gloomy about a Labour Government, but they cannot be worse than the Conservative Government.

I shall try to alleviate the gloom and doom felt by Members on the opposite Benches. First, we have federal systems and regional governments all over Europe. We were the main instigators of the German system. Apart from Sweden, that is now the richest nation in Europe. They are having their troubles, but the systems are still working and the people are much richer than we are, so things cannot be all that gloomy. The Catalonian experiment of regional government in Spain is working well and attracting business.

Much has already been mentioned about Ulster. I have little experience of Ulster since the troubles started but, before the troubles, I used to go there quite a lot looking at agriculture. I was astonished at how well the Ulster parliament, the Stormont parliament, worked, how closely they all worked together and how successful they were in a whole lot of fields, particularly in agriculture, which I knew about. Long before we had realised that silage and making use of grass was important, they had grasped it because of the close cooperation between Queens University and a certain Professor Morrison and the fact that they all knew each other, and they were putting out subsidies for the building of silos, to the great benefit of agriculture.

Their transport was integrated in a way that ours has never been, and it worked extremely well. One of the things they did was to attract industry. When we were practically turning away inward investment and not encouraging our own investment very much, they were working hard at it and they were most successful--far more successful than we were in Scotland or anywhere else at that time. Of course, the

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oppression of a minority led to the troubles, and however well it worked technically, the parliament had to go. But it has to come back.

I wish to say something at this point to the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, whose contribution to prosperity in Scotland I applaud and thank him for. But he said that he was very grateful to the Secretary of State for all that he had done, and various companies could not have done what they have done without the assistance of the Secretary of State; and he said what a valuable chap the Secretary of State is.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, so far as I can see, spends most of his time fighting with his colleagues in England in order to get concessions, trying to overcome little things like being forced to introduce the poll tax before its introduction in England as an experiment for England, and putting up with that sort of thing. Indeed, the Secretaries of State and Ministers in the recent past were a very much better breed of Conservative, in my view, than many of the present ones and they spent their time trying to alleviate the ridiculous policies of the Conservative Government--for example, in selling off the Forestry Commission's estates. I will not name any names, but they showed great skill in selling off the smallest bits and those that they thought would not interfere with the integrity of the whole thing.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Nickson--and, like my noble friend, I talk about home rule--if you have home rule parliament in Scotland, the officers and Ministers there would fall over themselves in order to help industry, because that is what they want, and it is not only they who want it. They would not only be acting to get inward investment from large firms all over the globe; they would be acting to stimulate and help local investment in Scotland, based in Scotland. They would not be fighting against anyone in order to get it, because the parliament itself would be all for development in Scotland. That, I believe, is the basis of the argument which has long convinced me that we should have home rule in Scotland inside the United Kingdom. I have spent my life in Great Britain and not only in Scotland.

There is a lesson that has not been learnt by the Government, as shown in the speeches engendered at this start of the election campaign, which centred on the fact that the SNP will gain power. All the history of the British Isles, particularly the Irish history, shows that where any form of home rule is refused, the SNP, the Irish nationalists or whoever it may be, gain power. There are a lot of very good people in the SNP; they are not all crackpots by any manner of means and a lot of them are doing good work in local government. The fact is that if we have home rule in Scotland and if they have the opportunity to work and get results, they will forget about independence and promote the good of Scotland. That is a lesson that we have to learn. By that, one will save the Union. There is no question in my mind but that that is the way to go. I recommend the party opposite to forget the gloom and start thinking ahead.

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11.2 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, my belief is that the context in which this debate is set is one of disenchantment and disaffection. There is a very widespread feeling of alienation in the United Kingdom. It is not limited to the understandable phrase, common in the United States, that "it's time to throw the rascals out".

The governed in our country feel--I believe they feel rightly--that those who are set in authority over them are careless of their rights, their needs and their desires, are remote from their true problems and are incapable of righting real wrongs. But one does not want to be unnecessarily gloomy. We heard earlier today that the Prime Minister has a cunning plan. He intends to send the Stone of Scone back to Scotland. What a contribution to constitutional advance! There is hardly any more to be said.

The inevitable consequence, which I described earlier, derives from the statism which has typified this country's governing methods for the past 20 years. The fact is that power has been ruthlessly sucked into the great central maw. Local discretion, real choice and individual care have virtually vanished. What we have left now is the thin, emaciated ghost of what was once thriving local government.

We need historical perspective on these occasions. I was not a Member of your Lordships' House in 1832 nor had any relative of mine a seat there; nor did such conditions obtain in 1870, just after the Secret Ballot Act had been passed. But had I had the infinite benefit of being present either in 1832 or in 1870, I should have heard exactly the same arguments deployed that I heard this evening: where will it all end? It will be the end of civilisation as we know it. It will mean the break-up of the Union.

The fact is that there were two coincident developments in the 19th century: the first was an accretion of power to Westminster, but coincident with that development there grew up flourishing, powerful local government. The two were not enemies; they were brothers who marched together. The great cities, by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of this, had the power and the ability to provide--whatever the blemishes--local services responsive to local needs. What would Joseph Chamberlain say now about the present wreck that he would see?

Is there anyone present to take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Haskel? Is there anyone present who would dispute for a single second that, were there a referendum in Greater London tomorrow, there would be a massive affirmative vote for London-wide government? It is the only city in the civilised world without local government. It is foolish, it is idle to speak of a continuing Union when the present Government have distorted the machinery of government in this country to throw true unionism out of kilter.

The deficit in effective locally-controlled power has secondary consequences. I should like to deal for a moment with at least two parts of the United Kingdom

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in which I have an interest. Very little has been said about Northern Ireland. I do not chide the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor; he specifically said that he had a limited time and therefore a limited field in which he could deploy his view. But Northern Ireland has hardly been mentioned. Is it any wonder that Northern Ireland and many people who live there feel resentment?

There is no locally accountable democracy of any consequence in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State sits in Hillsborough, the last pale Viceroy. Good candidates will not stand for public office when public office is a sham and a joke, having no power except whether or not street lighting should be set in a specific cul-de-sac; whether bins should be collected on Wednesday or possibly, after anguished philosophical dispute, on Thursday. The quangos there are all-powerful; they come from a closed, charmed circle. That circle is controlled by individuals, many of whom have said tonight that the Union is valid and must continue. The Union will be valid and it should continue only if it provides decent accommodation in the widest sense to all its citizens, and it fails to do so.

I have complained regularly about the quango system in Northern Ireland. The police authority is not elected even in part; the chairman is employed and dismissed at the curt conclusion of the Secretary of State. It is only responsible power which encourages people to join fully in a Union.

It was not, so far as I am aware, the leader of the Labour Party who said:

    "The United Kingdom Government has no selfish economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland".
It was Mr. Peter Brooke, and the words were repeated by the present Secretary of State and the present Prime Minister as part of the present Government's policy. Mr. Budgen, the Member for Wolverhampton in another place, when that phrase was first used, asked whether it could properly be applied also to Wolverhampton, his constituency; and answer came there none.

Perhaps I can indulge myself for a moment or two with the question of Wales. I find little to say about Scotland because it has all been endlessly said before and I want to avoid being one of those Members of your Lordships' House who say, "What I intended to say has already been said" and then spend half-an-hour repeating it. All I can say is that, self-evidently, to any reasonable and reasoning sentient being, the Labour Party's policy for Scotland is absolutely right in every conceivable way. I just wanted to put the matter reasonably.

Let us look at Wales for a moment or two. I listened with great care to the speech of my noble friend Lord Tonypandy. He and I will agree on this: the overwhelming bulk of those who live in Wales want to remain willing participants in the United Kingdom. They love and revere their own country, Wales. They respect and treasure what should be the generous diversity of the United Kingdom. I have lived in England for most of my adult life. It is a fine country. It has aspects of generosity and openness,

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sometimes, which make it great. It has aspects sometimes which are exclusive. I shall not fully repeat the well-known phrase and tag from the late President Lyndon Johnson about tent inclusion and exclusion because I believe that it is too well-known to require repetition.

The fact is that if you live in Wales at the moment you are offered the present circumstances. The Treasury allocates to the Welsh Office £7 billion per year. It is all controlled by the Welsh Office. For the past 17 years the Welsh Office has been in the hands of Conservative appointees. But there are only six Conservative MPs in the Palace of Westminster elected from Welsh constituencies. One-third of the £7 billion is handed over to quangos. They are packed with unelected placemen and women, with rather fewer of the latter than the former. They are subject to no scrutiny by the people nor to any censure or sanction by election. They are secretive, unrepresentative and, in many instances, actually corrupt. I hear some tutting. Read the Welsh newspapers over the past five years if my veracity is doubted, and the records of those who have been sent to prison. Almost every aspect of public administration in Wales is rigidly controlled in that way. The late Mayor Daley of Chicago and the even later Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana would have taken off their hats in silent and respectful admiration.

What is to be done? The fact is that devolution exists in Wales and Scotland at the moment. The debate is not about devolution, as the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, rightly said, it is about control and accountability of the devolved powers. I believe that the basis of the referendum in Wales is morally right and constitutionally appropriate. The question is going to be two-fold. First, does Wales want an elected assembly and, secondly, does it wish proportional representation to be the mechanism of election? I do not despise my fellow citizens in Wales. I believe that they are able to understand questions as well as any Member of your Lordships' House.

The second point about the referendum, curiously in our political life, is unselfish. On first past the post in Wales, the Labour Party would win a crushing victory. That is not what we want. We do not want a monolithic, selfish superiority. We have had more than enough of that from the present Government. We want an assembly to reflect a pluralistic society. We want every significant strand of public thought and opinion to be fairly represented and to be honourably considered. We want women to have their full part to play. We want diversity of language, culture, religion and history to be included and welcomed. We are not afraid to welcome to the full table those who differ from us. That will be the basis of a continuing Union. There is virtually no sizeable segment of public opinion in Wales which wishes the break up of the Union. We are a small country. We despise no one. We devalue no one else's language or history, but we are proud of our own. We believe that we have a moral entitlement to decide for ourselves whether or not we want an assembly. The slave and serf will never co-operate with a master; the equal will.

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At the moment, there is a strange undercurrent in our lives. The tide is changing. I do not believe that the present Government--I put it as carefully as I can--have understood the deep changes that are beginning to occur. The conduct of government in the past 17 years has done serious damage and caused significant rending of our national life, by which I mean the life of the entire United Kingdom, diverse as it is.

This has been an important debate, and on occasions it has been repetitive. But I hope that some of the words that have been spoken will cause the Government to think again. If they do not accommodate that thinking, lasting damage will be done to the fabric of our Union.

11.12 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I begin by welcoming to our House, albeit in his absence, the Lord Chief Justice. His speech was one of great clarity and elegance and was highly informative. We congratulate him most warmly on his appointment to his new office.

The quality of today's debate has more than justified the Government's decision to set aside two days for discussion of our constitution. Your Lordships' contributions have covered a wide range of issues both thoughtfully and in depth, and I think that the quality of debate today has reinforced the strong arguments for preserving this House in its present form.

The constitution of the United Kingdom has evolved over hundreds of years. The strength and security it has provided are matters of which we can all be proud. It has safeguarded our individual rights and freedoms for centuries. Yet, if elected, the party opposite would dismantle that constitutional settlement in its first year of office. Their proposals would, as the Prime Minister has stressed, lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Scotland would be set on the path to independence with its own tax-raising parliament. Wales would be cut adrift through the establishment of an assembly in Cardiff. England would be carved up into a chaotic patchwork of regional assemblies, and more powers would be taken from Westminster and handed to Brussels. Our 900 year-old Parliament would be left impotent.

The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred to an inconsistency on the part of the Government on the issue of subsidiarity. He said that it was argued for vigorously by the Government in relation to Europe but not for parts of the United Kingdom. I suggest that there is a real distinction here. Brussels needs nation states to control it but European federalists like the idea of breaking up the United Kingdom--and other member states--into regions. I suggest that it is part of the grand design of those who support a federalist solution. The dissembling of countries into regions enables Brussels to bypass national governments and thus avoid the necessary control by national governments.

Noble Lords opposite claim that their proposals would improve the way in which the United Kingdom is governed by devolving power to the regions. In reality, they would simply increase bureaucracy by creating a whole new tier of government. If there is a

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problem, the usual solution suggested by noble Lords opposite is more government. Real devolution means giving individuals the freedom to make their own decisions--giving the people, not the bureaucrats, the power to choose. That is what this Government have consistently done in the face of bitter opposition from noble Lords opposite. For example, the users of services now have far more information about the quality of the service they receive with performance tables, comparative waiting times and information on key indicators. They increasingly have the ultimate power of voting with their feet by switching schools or choosing another hospital. The Conservatives have never shied away from change. We took Britain into Europe. We set up the Select Committees system. We have transferred power from Whitehall both to Scotland and Wales. The new arrangements for the Scottish Grand Committee have provided opportunities for the most senior Ministers of the Crown to contribute to debates about matters within their responsibilities relating to Scotland as well as providing for Second and Third Reading debates on Scottish Bills to take place in the Grand Committee, whenever it makes sense to do so.

Changes announced by the Secretary of State for Wales will ensure that there is more discussion of Welsh business in Parliament and that it is more accessible to the people of Wales.

Those changes are evolutionary. They build on existing arrangements. They maintain the distinctive tradition of Scotland and Wales without undermining the prosperity and well being of the United Kingdom.

As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has said, the Government are unequivocally committed to the Union. We believe that the present arrangements whereby Scotland and Wales enjoy the advantages of full representation at Westminster and a Secretary of State with a seat in the Cabinet are to the best advantage, not only of the people of Scotland and Wales, but to the whole of the United Kingdom. A strong, united nation state to which all parts of the kingdom contribute and in which all are represented also provides the most effective means of advancing the interests of the whole country both within the European Union and indeed throughout the world--a partial answer to my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Dalzell. A fragmented country quickly loses its influence among other nations.

As the Economist has said

    "Any constitutional changes ... should pass three tests: They should be clear, should be perceived as workable, and should command widespread consent. Labour's devolution proposals fail on all three counts".
A referendum on them has now been promised. But one has to ask what result would constitute widespread consent. The Labour Party says 50 per cent. But 50 per cent. on what turn-out?

The party opposite proposes that Scotland should have its own tax-raising parliament. That would lead to the dismemberment of the United Kingdom. There would be no second Chamber to revise legislation; no checks or balances to its power. Of its 129 members, 56 of them would be placemen appointed by party

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leaders. There would be gender quotas for its membership, which as a woman I find extraordinarily patronising.

That parody of a parliament would have the power over many of the matters which most concern people: their housing, children's education, health. To cap it all, that parliament would have the power to raise taxes--a special tartan tax. I have heard some noble Lords say that the parliament would be free to cut tax rates as well as raise them. But looking at Labour's record in office--both nationally and locally--that is inconceivable. As the honourable Member for Dundee East said

    "I certainly do not envisage in the near future any left of centre government cutting taxes in Scotland".

In addition, Labour would introduce a minimum wage and sign up to the Social Chapter. Inward investment would be lost, and jobs destroyed.

For months people have been warning against the Labour Party's plans. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has forecast that the basic rate of income tax in Scotland would rise from 24 pence to nearly 37 pence if devolution took place.

Rather than admit it is wrong and drop the proposals, the party opposite has now promised a referendum on them. But a referendum will not answer any of the fundamental questions that the proposals raise.

As the honourable Member for Linlithgow said:

    "Why should Scottish MPs at Westminster be able to vote on purely English matters while English MPs will have no say over matters devolved to a Scottish Parliament?"

Does the party opposite really intend that Scottish MPs should be able to vote on and decide matters relating to England while English MPs would not be allowed to vote on matters relating to Scotland? If it proposes to prevent all Scottish MPs from voting on matters relating solely to England, how would they form a government at Westminster? My noble friend Lord Gray of Contin posed another interesting question about the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland, which also needs to be addressed under any such proposals.

And if a Scottish Parliament were established, would the Labour Party reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster to ensure that Scotland no longer had higher representation at Westminster than her population justifies? Finally, there is the question of who votes in this referendum--a question posed by my noble friend Lord Beloff. A Scottish parliament will impact quite materially on the English. Will they have the chance to vote?

Those are fundamental questions. They need to be answered. But noble Lords opposite have so far failed to answer them.

I shall answer quite directly the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, about what we on this side of the House would do if, heaven forfend, noble Lords opposite were to come to power on a clear manifesto pledge for devolution, and proceeded in power in the first Session of Parliament to prepare the legislation for a referendum leading to devolution and to a Bill. We would do what our parliamentary democracy allows us to do. We would oppose such legislation and we would bow only to the will of Parliament as a whole. Indeed,

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it would be important on such a constitutional issue for each and every Member of this House to follow his conscience. I hope too that voice would be given in this House and in another place by MPs to those people of Scotland who did not want to support a devolved Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, in posing a question to my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin, appeared to advocate government by plebiscite, especially referring to wasting prime parliamentary time on the detail of a devolution Bill. Although those of us on this side of the House would not like to see the Bill at all, we would not regard the opportunity of debating and possibly opposing and/or revising such a Bill as wasting parliamentary time. If noble Lords were ever to proceed in that way we would argue that Parliament must use all of the time it has and all the time needed to give full voice to our views on such a constitutional proposal. To do otherwise would be giving way to dictatorship.

The noble Lord, Lord Plant, was disappointed that noble Lords have not mentioned the role of local government. That is another of the questions to be answered by noble Lords opposite. Devolution and regional assemblies would indeed impact on local government. What thought has been given to that in their proposals? However, that issue was put right by my noble friend Lord Bowness, and he has made good the deficit.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, on his research into comments made more than 20 years ago in support of devolution by my friends who now hold high office in government. I shall resist the temptation to talk of the right honourable Mr. Blair, who has had a road-to-Damascus conversion on nuclear weapons. However, what a pity the noble Lord did not follow through the logic of his argument. The Conservative Party did indeed look at devolution and was attracted by an idea; that was until the practicalities and contradictions inherent in such a proposal became clear. I refer to the West Lothian question, the role of the Secretary of State in Cabinet, the issue of finance and so forth.

We have sought to develop ways of giving a greater voice and influence to Scotland through the Grand Committee, linked directly with Parliament in Westminster which represents the whole of the Union. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has taken steps to strengthen the role of the Scottish Grand Committee which meet the concern of the noble Earl, Lord Perth: that of scrutinising the work of the Scottish Office. Perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lady Saltoun that those arrangements will indeed be kept under review.

The noble Lord, Lord Burton, asked about the cost of a Scottish Parliament. Initial estimates are of a capital cost of £36 million for permanent buildings, offices for Members and staff, and accommodation for extra civil servants; ongoing annual costs, salaries and running costs are about £40 million.

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A referendum will not answer any of the fundamental questions which the Labour Party raises, as the honourable Member for Linlithgow in another place has said. I shall not repeat that argument.

I turn to proposals for a Welsh Assembly. There is no evidence that the people of Wales want such a body. The most reliable statement by the Welsh people was in the referendum of 1979 when the Labour Government's proposals for an assembly were rejected overwhelmingly. Only 20.3 per cent. of the turnout--that is 11.9 per cent. of the electorate--voted in favour. I might add that 71.7 per cent. of businessmen surveyed in the Institute of Directors' Wales Division business survey of May 1996 did not believe that Wales should have its own assembly.

In Wales, a separate assembly would create an unnecessary and costly tier of bureaucracy between Parliament and the 22 new unitary authorities and would inevitably take over the functions of local government, so increasing confusion and undermining accountability.

I was moved and deeply impressed by the speech of that eminent parliamentarian and man of the valleys, the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy. He articulated better than I ever could the case against devolution to an assembly in Wales. My noble friends and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

It has been suggested also that devolved powers within Scotland and Wales should be matched by the creation of new regional assemblies where they were desired in England. Regional assemblies would simply add an unwanted and unnecessary additional tier of bureaucracy and cost to existing arrangements.

The real reason for current talk about regional assemblies lies in the difficulty which proponents of assemblies for Scotland and Wales face in making sense of their proposals. But the arbitrary carving up of England into regions would not justify devolution elsewhere. It is always open to local authorities to co-operate in areas where that would be mutually beneficial and add value to the services they can provide to the communities which they represent.

Some local authorities have established regional fora to provide joint action and a single voice for the region but they consist of existing councillors. One such assembly exists in the North East, where I am a sponsor Minister, and another will be launched in Yorkshire and Humberside on 8th July.

As for regional offices, government offices are not pieces of machinery of regional government. They are integral parts of central government. They were created in April 1984 to bring together the functions of the Departments of Employment, of the Environment, Trade and Industry and Transport, which were already being discharged through a network in the English regions.

They have no separate legal identity. The officials who staff them continue to be accountable to Ministers of the four departments. There is no constitutional novelty there. The only unusual aspect is that the

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regional directors are responsible to four separate Secretaries of State rather than just one and they are all accountable to Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred to Northern Ireland. The situation there deserves a solution tailored to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland where, I remind the House, unlike in Scotland, there has previously been an assembly. The Government's aim is to improve democratic arrangements in Northern Ireland by returning more power to the local political representatives.

I think that this evening the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, rather blew a hole in the all-party approach to Northern Ireland issues. He will know that all-party talks are at a sensitive stage in Northern Ireland and those involved will continue to work painstakingly towards a solution for Northern Ireland. None of us can pre-empt the outcome of those talks and it would be wrong to do so at this time. However, I can say that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has shown great courage and determination in pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland.

Protecting the rights of the individual lies at the heart of the Government's policy on open government. It is clearly right that legitimate requests for information should be met. That is why the Government have introduced a package of measures, including the code of practice on open government, which meets the principal objectives of freedom of information legislation without the cost, confrontation, delay and the legal complexity experienced under some statutory freedom of information regimes overseas.

Under our system, appeals to the Parliamentary Ombudsman against non-disclosure of information can be made at no cost to the appellant which provides an individual with the right of complaint free of financial considerations. Those measures are winning considerable support as they increasingly take effect.

Some noble Lords have argued that the freedom of the individual in this country would be better protected if Britain had a written constitution and/or a new Bill of Rights, setting out a list of fundamental rights. But as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reminded us recently, we already have a living, breathing, working constitution, which already provides very effectively for the protection of the individual's rights and freedoms and one which can also change with the spirit of the times.

The noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, made a point most powerfully when he asked rhetorically how many other countries would even recognise a miscarriage of justice, let alone investigate one. He was rightly indignant about those who do not value just how much protection of the individual there is in this country; and how right he is.

The noble Lord also reminded us that a written constitution is not necessarily a guarantee of protection. Indeed, he used the analogy of the Weimar Republic, which did have a written constitution and which, quite specifically, included rights for religious freedom. Tell that to the Jews!

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Frankly, that constitution was not worth the paper that it was written on. On the noble Lord's other point about the Charity Commission and Charter 88, I have no doubt that the commission will have noted what the noble Lord had to say about the charter.

We have no need to immobilise our constitution in statutes, and we have no need for a new Bill of Rights seeking to codify the rights and freedoms enjoyed by people in this country. Most people would agree that human rights are already very well safeguarded in the United Kingdom. Our rights and freedoms are inherent in our legal systems, and are protected by them and by Parliament, unless those protections are removed or restricted by statute.

However, what such a Bill would do is to transfer responsibility for determining matters affecting individual rights and freedoms from Parliament to the courts, eroding the principle of parliamentary sovereignty which is fundamental to our constitution.

Some have suggested that the courts are already involved in such matters, that the boundary between policy-making and judicial interpretation has already been crossed, for example, through the use of judicial review. It is clearly right that the courts should hold Ministers to the proper use of their powers and should safeguard the procedural quality of decision-making. That is merely an example of our constitution working. But by the same token, it is of course ultimately up to Parliament to decide the laws and to create the framework within which judges and courts make their judgments.

It is too easy at times to take the safeguards and the protection that we enjoy for granted. We must not fall into the trap of doing so. We should be proud of those fundamental parts of our heritage and not seek to change them where there is neither a clear need nor an advantage in doing so. Some noble Lords have argued that, instead of a Bill of Rights, or as a first step towards one, the United Kingdom should incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, into our domestic law. For the reasons I have already explained, the Government do not believe that seeking to codify individual rights and freedoms in our law, whether in the form of an incorporated treaty or a free-standing bill of rights, is either necessary or desirable.

Those who suggest that the United Kingdom's record on breaches of the ECHR is the worst in Europe are simply misinformed. The UK's record of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights compares well with the record of any other country. Listening to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, I had to ask myself: what is the practical benefit of incorporation? On the contrary, incorporation would have required the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords to decide on yesterday's case in another way.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships some examples of the records of other countries as regards breaches of the ECHR: 27 allegations of violation respectively against the Portugese and Greek Governments were

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declared admissible by the Commission; 28 against the Austrian Government; 39 against the Government of the Netherlands; 57 against the Turkish Government; 148 against the French Government; and 453 against the Italian Government. Over the same period, only 24 allegations against the United Kingdom were declared admissible. Those figures hardly support the claim that incorporation reduces the number of cases going forward to Strasbourg. I agree with the powerful speech of my noble friend Lord Kingsland when he argued that incorporation is not necessary and, if it were suggested, it would only be futile.

I said earlier that we did not owe our constitution to political theories. It has been formed by the people of this country over the years. It is a lively, vibrant thing that embodies their values, their understandings, their respect for the individual and his freedom under the law. The changes which have taken place over the years have not been made for the sake of change or in the interests of particular institutions; they have been practical changes, driven by what people want and not what some people out there think they need. Over the centuries they have brought the government closer to the people. That is what we want. That is what we as a government have been concerned to do.

We have moved power away from central bureaucratic structures so that it is now closer to the people and to consumers. That has been done across the board in the fields of health, where hospital trusts now take decisions rather than the National Health Service; and in education where school governing bodies and not local government have the final say. It has also been done through the Citizen's Charter which has restored the individual's right to hold large, impersonal organisations to account; and, indeed, through a host of changes which have put consumers rather than providers in charge and have strengthened the independence of individuals. Contrary to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, more individual choice has been opposed root and branch by noble Lords opposite.

In the words of my noble friend Lord Nickson, who spoke so well for the business community in Scotland, the Labour Party proposals would create doubt, disadvantage and disunity. They would do nothing for competitiveness, confidence and continuity. The process of evolutionary change is our great tradition and goes right back to the Magna Carta. It has given us a constitution with firm foundations which binds the people of this country to the institutions which serve them and uphold their freedom. We must not undermine this stability and strength by experimenting and tinkering to no good purpose, or worse, for some narrow political end to enhance the "macho" image of the right honourable Member for Sedgefield.

At the end of the day any decision to change or not to change must be taken by Parliament. Parliament is the process through which the representatives of the people control the Executive. And, as I have said, it is Parliament which decides the laws on which judges and courts make their judgments. I believe passionately that the sovereignty of Parliament is

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fundamental to our constitution; that intricate complex of institutions and values which reflects our history as a nation and which values all the people of this country as individuals.

I am grateful to all those who have taken part in today's debate. I have news for the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, and noble Lords opposite. We on these Benches are in good heart. It may come as a disappointment to noble Lords opposite that we are looking forward to a rattling good debate

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tomorrow, to be led and concluded by my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Strathclyde respectively.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned until tomorrow.--(Viscount Cranborne.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.

        House adjourned at eighteen minutes before midnight.

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