Lord Paul Tyler writes…Devolution Dialogue on Democracy Day

Today is “Democracy Day”, a project running across BBC TV and Radio.  It’s fitting that in this same week, Nick Harvey and I have published proposals to bring decisions closer to those whom they affect: a prerequisite for real democracy in Britain.

Here on Liberal Democrat Voice, we have already had considerable debate over the merit of “devolution on demand” as compared to a big-bang, devolution-everywhere-now solution.  My views are well rehearsed!

However, the benefit of the CentreForum Devolution Dialogue in which Nick and I set out our alternative positions is that it brought us together in a greater measure of consensus than we anticipated.  Nick is still with those of you prefer to set out a scheme of devolution and press ahead with it everywhere.  His articulation of the case persuaded me that we should be more ambitious than simply letting everywhere devolve at their own pace.  He is right to say that we cannot leave some parts of the country permanently in limbo, still at the mercy of Westminster/Whitehall centralisation.

Yet his own prescription as to how local and regional government should be structured also helps illustrate why a wholly top-down solution is fraught with difficulty.  Nick proposes immediate abolition of all English local authorities, and their replacement with up to 150 “local governments” and up to 20 (he prefers a smaller number) “regional governments”.  It sounds elegant and straightforward, but I know what practical difficulties it will come up against at local level.  England does not seem to be a place susceptible to neat solutions.

So Nick and I agreed in our joint conclusion that he is right to want an ambitious timetable to devolve everywhere, and that I am (or at least might be!) right to want to start the process from the bottom-up.  We therefore propose an English Devolution Convention, involving local leaders and civic society, to draw up the boundaries of devolved institutions, and to do so by 2020.  Some areas would get their devolution earlier, but none would be left behind forever.

William Wallace writes in his foreword to the document:

As Scotland and Wales take their third stride on the devolution journey they [Nick and Paul] agree England must surely now take its first.

Meanwhile, we are also determined that the Tory knee-jerk of rearranging deckchairs in Westminster with schemes for “English Votes for English Laws” is a distraction from the real priority of devolution.

We hope our contribution to the debate on this will help move things forward and give Liberal Democrats something to argue for and campaign on.  Our proposals have already received positive coverage in Cornwall and Yorkshire:  now we must fill in the gaps around the rest of the country!

A devolution dialogue: Evolution or revolution is available here [pdf] and we will both be interested to see your comments on improving British democracy, on this post and elsewhere.



* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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  • Peter Davies 20th Jan '15 - 6:29pm

    There are two questions here:

    What powers need to be reserved for the UK parliament? This ought to be answered by the the whole of the UK and have the same answer throughout the UK. We seem to have accidentally delegated it to the leaders of the Scottish ‘No’ campaign.

    What bodies should take up the remaining powers in England? This is the question that needs to be answered ‘bottom up’. A proper assembly for London would do me fine but I wouldn’t mind if we had one for the whole South-East while Cornwall had a little one of its own

  • I fear we will lose even more public support if are set against English Votes for English laws.

    Even the vast majority of the Scottish population (in all opinion polls) say they agree with English votes for English laws.

  • Julian Tisi 21st Jan '15 - 9:55am

    I’ve suggested it before but here goes. The challenge is how to avoid the dogs breakfast of lots of different layers of government and no-one understanding what each level does. This is a recipe for lots of bureaucracy and little accountability, as voters don’t know for example who runs the NHS or education in this area.

    My solution would be regional or national assemblies, based roughly on the Euro constituencies (so we already have them for Scotland, NI, Wales and London). Then (and here’s the clincher) one and only one further level of local government below that – this bottom level can have regional variations, but it will be clear what power this authority has.

  • I have some sympathy with the views expressed by George Potter and Julian Tisi in as much as England is crying out for something that is easy to nderstand and does not look or taste like a Dog’s Breakfast.

    We might want to learn a lesson from the federal settlement in Germany devised and introduced by UK Civil Servants after the second world war and extended to what had been East Germany following 1989.
    The plain fact is that it works.
    There is clarity, simplicity and co-terminous of boundaries for all sorts of pubic authorities and other organisations.

    In 2015 in England some people seem to be proposing something more akin to the vagaries and complexities of the Holy Roman Empire. Not a good model in my view.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Jan '15 - 2:08pm

    The problem with “English Votes for English laws” is that laws can’t be neatly categorised as applicable only to England and to the whole of the UK. A law may contain parts that apply only to England, and other parts that apply also to all or some other regions of the country. Are we seriously going to have a situation where Scottish MPs are expected to abstain from certain divisions in sittings on some particular law? And how do we apply it to select committees?
    I am loath to consider any solution that interferes with the notion of Parliament as an assembly of equals. It is for the same reason that I cannot support any system of weighted votes for MPs, and both are borne from the same naive idea that the only thing MPs ever do is vote in the main Chamber. EVEL in particular would create a group of part-time MPs (who would nonetheless have to attend almost all the sessions of the other, full-time MPs) and ultimately it would be unworkable.

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