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Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in his opening remarks traced some of the developments in our constitution and referred to its largely unwritten nature. Indeed, other noble Lords have done so. Nevertheless, the most important changes which have taken place in our constitution have been brought about by changes in statute. They have been deliberate changes based on legislation. It is that kind of change that we are discussing today. However, those changes are not intended to cut across the consensus in the House as a whole that the United Kingdom should not in any way be diminished.
From the Magna Carta onwards there has been a perpetual struggle about where real power should reside. Throughout the centuries power has passed from the Monarch to Parliament, from Lords to Commons and from Parliament to the executive. Now the question is: how can it be devolved and shared more with the people? I believe that some of the most important changes began with the Reform Act 1832, culminating in the universal franchise of 1918 and 1928. During that 100 years the basis of our democracy was set. The right to vote was based on citizenship, not on wealth or privilege.
A central feature of the 1918/1928 reforms was that women were given equal political rights with men. Perhaps that process was finalised by the Life Peerages Act 1958, which introduced Life Peers and brought women into the House of Lords for the first time.
It seems to me that the changes which we are now discussing and the reaction to those changes, particularly the Prime Minister's rather contrived and exaggerated alarm at these proposals, are the modern version of the reaction to every reform which has been brought about where the interests of opponents were to retain the status quo.
In the second half of this century perhaps the most important change that has taken place has been our membership of the European Union, and I couple with that the 1975 referendum which confirmed our membership of the Union. That was a process of sharing power with a wider group, sharing power with Europe, our partners in Europe. It was not entirely new because through treaties and other Acts we have before shared power with those beyond our shores.
But another process has been brought about which was in a different direction. There have been changes which have affected our constitution, and those changes have been an acceleration of centralisation of power in the executive. That has come about not by open discussion on the constitution and deliberate changes but as a by-product of government policy on other matters.
Previously there had been some sharing of power and influence by the government of the day, the two Houses of Parliament, local government and other non-governmental organisations. Since 1979, much of that has been diminished. As the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said, local government has lost much of its power and influence. In the great metropolis of London there is no central governmental machinery. It is the only major capital city in Europe without its own locally governed and civic institutions. That surely cannot be right.
Our Civil Service, respected for its independence, has been depleted. Much of it has been transferred to so-called unaccountable next steps agencies and parts of it are threatened with privatisation. The Church too has lost much of its influence. Some of its pronouncements have been rubbished by government and in this House. The universities are subjected to more and more bureaucratic interference and control, as is education in general. The independence of the professions is under attack. The BBC has been subjected to interference from time to time. As for trade unions, they appear to have no status at all with this Government, and the CBI appears not to have much more.
The outcome of all that has been that final policy decisions have come more and more within the control of central government, either by the power of patronage in appointments to the growing number of quangos set up to replace other machinery that had more diverse
That development needs to be halted. We need more open, more diversified and more democratic structures than those that have developed in recent years. The proposals from my party are an attempt to do exactly that. I shall not go into the details of devolution in Scotland and Wales as that has already been adequately addressed. However, I accept the principle of devolution. I also believe that the idea of a referendum as to whether devolution should take place is a democratic and definitive way of getting a response on which legislation can finally be based. When the time comes, although I do not think that it would be in the early days of a Labour Government, I would, like my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, support regional government for the reasons that he outlined.
We have had an important debate today. However, it is one which should be continued throughout the country because we are now discussing some of the vital democratic issues which will affect the whole of the country in the coming millennium.
Lord Burton: My Lords, today's debate has been long and very diverse. Consequently, as I am sure noble Lords will be relieved to hear, I have managed to dispose of many of my notes. We have heard many interesting speeches and I do not wish to single out any one in particular. However, having listened to my noble friend Lord Nickson, I can only hope that Mr. Blair will read his speech. He would then have an excellent excuse to change his mind once again and drop such proposals altogether.
There was a headline in one of last Sunday's newspapers which stated, "We will not spend more, says Mr. Blair". Therefore, I wonder whether we can look now at what the cost of a Scottish parliament is likely to be. Would it be thousands or millions of pounds and where would that money come from? Would the money come from health, education, police or fire service budgets? Indeed, which budget would pay for such expensive unnecessary bureaucracy, if there is to be no increase in expenditure?
Last week I had to speak on the telephone to a West Coast crofter in order to apologise for being unable to attend a National Farmers' Union meeting which he was organising for today. I cannot tell noble Lords verbatim what he said to me when he heard that we were to debate devolution. In fact, his comments were totally unparliamentary. However, he bitterly complained that we already had far too much interference from public bodies. He cited as an example officials appointed by our new Highland Council who are called "Animal Welfare Officers". They have recently been travelling around the country, calling on crofters and farmers.
Cruelty to animals was, and is, most ably handled by the SSPCA. However, I know from my own office just how much time is wasted in filling in statistics, trying to convince various officials as to what sort of decisions
Those in the central belt inevitably think that they know what is best for Scotland. To give those people the powers sought would be very dangerous for the Highlands. We want less government, not more. What would these new politicians do? At the moment there are parliamentary representatives and local government representatives. Is it intended that the members of a Scottish parliament should take over half the work of the Westminster representatives, or are they going to take over some of the tasks carried out by the local government representatives, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, said applied to Wales--or might apply to Wales?
That would either leave the current Westminster Members of Parliament short of work, and/or interfere with the newly reorganised local government. Or possibly the new Scottish parliamentarians will be short of something to do, and will seek further ways of interfering with our lives. Our Highland Council already has jurisdiction over one-third of the land area of Scotland, and I cannot see it being at all pleased at the probable interference from Edinburgh.
There has quite rightly been much talk of a "tartan tax", and income tax, but which set of taxes will some of us have to pay? Will the income be based on the place of residence, or the place of work, or where the money has been earned, which may be partly in each country? Will England be treated as a foreign country by the Scottish inspector of taxes, as of course currently there are special arrangements for tax paid in a foreign country? A large proportion of any tax paid will still have to go to the Westminster jurisdiction, but I wonder whether there has been any decision on what proportion of British taxation will be paid to Scotland or Wales?
It is surely not surprising that the Labour Party now seeks a referendum. It looks as if someone has suddenly woken up to the chaos which will ensue. Whatever the result of a referendum, the Labour Party will not have to take the blame when things go wrong. No doubt some of those showing annoyance at the proposal to hold a referendum are clearly anxious about the result. For what it is worth, I have been told that a poll taken by the Sun newspaper last week rejected the devolution proposals. The Sun is not part of my usual reading and therefore I cannot confirm that.
One only hopes that, although there are some noisy fanatics who seem to want a "Bosnia-type" situation for Britain, there are likely to be sufficient numbers of votes to reject the disintegration of our country. I was interested to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford, expressed doubts as to the result of a referendum. I think he is right. The country will be split down the middle.
There is one further point of concern. For a great many years now we have had a second chamber of government, as indeed of course have many other countries such as America. That is absolutely vital for checking legislation and making sure we take a second look at it to ensure that it is correct. Under the present proposals for a parliament for Scotland, presumably there would be no one to check or revise its legislation. That should be a matter of considerable concern. With the threat of a Scottish parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Nickson, said, there is a considerable economic risk. I have seriously considered whether I should not sell my home and properties in the North which have been with my family for 500 years.
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