Paul Tyler writes … English Devolution:  we’re working on it!

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I’m glad to see Lib Dem bloggers thinking aloud about devolution in England.

In particular, this very concise piece by Nick Barlow on his blog is excellent, though neither it nor Matthew Green’s rather more critical tone, or even Stephen Tall’s, reflect the fact that the Party has already been thinking, developed proposals and had them endorsed by members at conference.  We are ahead of the game and should say so!

We passed at York the Power to the People policy paper, and endorsed a ‘devolution on demand’ model for England to enable new institutions to be set up first in those areas of the country which want them, with others following.  I agree with Nick (Barlow!) that an all ‘English’ solution to ‘the English Question’ would both unbalance the Union (which I very much hope will be preserved) and fail totally to decentralise power.  Instead, a ‘bottom-up’ approach to devolution, starting in the areas where there is most enthusiasm for it, could be a catalyst to the real decentralisation we all seek.

With colleagues, I am now working to illustrate how this policy could work and will be looking for cross-party supporters:  Labour have already started talking about ‘messy devolution’ and the Scottish referendum has brought the Conservatives a long way from their thinking 15 years ago, when they believed Unionism necessarily meant a wholly unitary state.  Watch this space!

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

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27 Comments

  • Toby Fenwick 9th Sep '14 - 6:36pm

    Paul,

    This is obviously welcome but I strongly recommend we devolve symmetrically to all 4 nations and allow those Parliaments to devolve further. England in particular needs to be given the choice of regional devolution via its Parliament not as a fait accompli to it.

    Symmetrical devolution, a written constitution and federal institutions with a Senate? Sounds great, where do I sign up?

  • Trevor Stables 9th Sep '14 - 6:38pm

    While I welcome the fact that proposals are being formulated we do not need a piecemeal solution – yes to Regional Govt but also yes to an English Parliament within a federal UK.

  • Completely agree with the other two comments. Just because England is larger doesn’t mean it should have a national parliament like the other nations. Plus, any fule kno that in a federal system of four nations, the smaller ones would be more likely to be disproportionately represented at a federal level, so the other nations would have much to gain from a single English parliament.

    The only rider to an English parliament would be the sensible consideration of a separate London entity, giving the UK five constituent parts and ensuring that all English interests do not get subsumed within the wider ambitions of London, which is big, rich and powerful enough to be considered separately.

    Anyway, thanks for highlighting this. I hope the national party is a bit bolder in stating our unequivocal support for a fair settlement for all nations and proper equality for England.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '14 - 7:17pm

    It’s highly unlikely that the best solution to the unitary state is to have the opposite with a fragmented one. If you break up England it will reduce competition for jobs and politics will become more amateurish than it is already.

    An English, Northern Ireland, Scottish, Welsh and UK parliament would be fine. A constitutional convention could sort this out, not just have chaos with parliaments popping up all over the place.

    Regards

  • I hope I do not seem to be in a hurry but having listened to debate on devolution to the enlish regions at the 1976 Liberal Assembly and several times since I am puzzled as to why Paul and others are till “working on it”.

    Some policies seem o be adopted instantly in the blink of Nick Clegg’s eye. Why does power to the regions require decades and then some?

  • paul barker 9th Sep '14 - 7:34pm

    The big problem with any English Parliament is whether English Voters would turn out to vote for both it & The Federal Body. The danger is that votes would drain away from one of the Parliaments leaving it at the mercy of extremist & “Protest” Voters, like The European Parliament. Would we want another Parliament dominated by UKIP or worse ?

  • Yorkshire Guidon 9th Sep '14 - 7:51pm

    How do we display the ‘enthusiasm’ for the ‘bottom-up’ approach? Please don’t tell me it’s up to a few local council leaders to club together to demonstrate ‘enthusiasm’ for a combined authority!

  • If taxes are levied by the local parliaments, people will turn out to vote for it.

  • “We’re working on it”,.. is just not good enough. We have to get serious and repatriate our sovereignty from Brussels first. Otherwise you are simply working on the insipid notion of setting up 4 regional ‘talking shops’.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Sep '14 - 9:07pm

    I am all for further devolution, to the point where all parts of the UK have post-referendum scotland style devo max powers… but i am not a federalist per-se:

    Personally, I am with #2, for this reason:

    “103 The constitutional position of the judiciary under a Consolidation Act, therefore, would be that the courts uphold the terms of the Consolidation Act against infringement by all later Acts of Parliament, save where an intention to override, amend or repeal some part of the Consolidation Act is clearly expressed in the contradictory later statute. It would then be for Parliament and its scrutiny committees to ensure that any such later Act of Parliament had been carefully considered and approved as an amendment to the codified constitution. The Consolidation Act itself could be periodically re-issued in its amended form.”

    It would preserve parliamentary primacy, while rendering the constitutional understandable by the masses.

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmpolcon/463/46339.htm

  • Nigel Sollitt 9th Sep '14 - 10:41pm

    The UK consists of 12 government regions yet only 4 of them are currently represented by a devolved parliament/assembly (Scotland, Wales, N Ireland & London). Simply on the basis of equality, it is wrong that the remaining 8 government regions s of the UK are deprived that same level of democracy ! Lib Dems have an ideal opportunity here to right that wrong and to grasp a unique selling proposition by becoming the omly major party to actively seek devolved parliaments/assemblies for ALL the UK regions and to include policy to that effect in their forthcoming manifesto!

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Sep '14 - 10:44pm

    Hi Nick,

    I understand your problem with England being too big, perhaps we could create a northern assembly, but we should also remember that we elect people to exercise power on our behalf and not just to give it away. People say it is more democratic to give it away, but not if they don’t want it. Even if they do want it one day, if we just have an “on demand” system then do we get rid of it once demand falls? Then set it back up again? Pop up and pop down parliaments?

    Most people would probably want to carve a sensible system out for the country, not have to worry about an ever changing parliamentary and assembly system.

  • Nigel Sollitt 9th Sep '14 - 11:20pm

    The UK consists of 12 government regions yet only 4 of these are represented by devolved parliaments/assemblies (Scotland, N Ireland, Wales & London). Simply on the basis of equality, it is wrong that the remaining 8 government regions of the UK are deprived that same level of democracy. The Lib Dems have an ideal opportunity here to right that wrong and to grasp a unique selling proposition by being the ONLY major party to actively seek devolved parliaments/assemblies for ALL the UK regions and by including policy to that effect in their forthcoming manifesto!

  • “Messy devolution”? In Scotland, that’s just going to be taken to mean unformed, half-baked plans which will be dropped like hot potatoes once the Scots have voted.

  • England is not too big most probably think its consecutive governments who target London at the benefit of growth but drowns the rest of the union

    Why should London people have additional living allowance it just promotes London employers would provide work elsewhere if people could not afford living there

    This is knee jerk re Scotland and not really offered or explaned to the electorate, sounds like no top down NHS we have election then it’s forced down our throats because a few politicians want it

  • Dinti Batstone 10th Sep '14 - 8:23am

    The Power to the People policy working group I chaired spent two years looking at this. We consulted very widely both inside and outside the party, including an all-member survey which endorsed ‘Devolution on Demand’ as the favoured approach of Liberal Democrat party members. Many of the arguments being put in the discussion above were considered at length by our policy working group before we produced our final paper. Alternative approaches were also debated by Conference last spring, and again the Devolution on Demand approach was the preferred way forward . Click the link in Paul’s piece above to read the final paper endorsed by Conference.

  • Julian Tisi 10th Sep '14 - 2:22pm

    I’m against an English parliament and I’m sure the vast majority of English people are too. There simply isn’t a clamouring for it – nor regional assemblies for that matter – aside from a few political nerds like us.

    The reasons I’m opposed is that I just don’t see what problem it solves in order to justify what would be another costly layer of bureaucracy and complexity. I can just imagine it – I live in a unitary borough, but the county still runs certain things (like the fire service), then we have UK laws and some European ones too. The whole system is clearly crying out for a 5th layer of regional or English government!

    I’m not against different levels of government per se – far from it – but the cost and complexity needs to be justified. In the case of Scottish and Welsh devolution because there was a very clear demand for it. In the case of the EU because there are some things that are better decided together with our European partners. But let’s not go down the English or Regional devolution model just to make the map look neat. Lots of countries have autonomous regions without a neat / fully federal model.

  • Yorkshire Guidon 10th Sep '14 - 2:24pm

    So Dinti, I’ve read through 3.6 and I draw the conclusion that the party does not support the creation of a directly elected assembly for Yorkshire unless by some quirk the 20 or so local authorities with in the region agree to aggregate their powers in a single body?

  • What John Tilley said.

    We are the one biggish party to actually have a federal structure baked into the constitution and we are still “working on it”? It’s all very well to call for a constitutional convention – that would obviously be necessary at some stage – but long before that we should have developed arguments to put to the nation. It would be nice to have some leadership for a change.

    The other day when Radio 4’s ‘Today’ had an item on possible federal approaches but they didn’t bother to invite a Lib Dem to discuss the pros and cons and I can see why.

  • I would like to see a single English Parliament. If the body has proper legislating powers it cannot be broken down into regions. Or we would need another layer for those England-wide matters. More elections, more politicians. This to replace the House of Commons. The federal parliament, dealing with national security, defence, foreign affairs, international trade, and the national budget, can replace the House of Lords and be designed to balance geography and populations. Here is where English regions can come in, as they do in European elections. We could / should allow representation from everywhere the UK has responsibility for defence and foreign affairs, so each of the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories should have a seat. The key will be to reduce political overheads and layers, not increase them. 650 MPs and 774 members of the Lords become say 250 English parliamentarians and 200 “Senators”. Then pay them properly and do not permit second jobs and directorships.

    I would not personally support regional English assemblies – it would just be another expensive layer of local politicians of highly variable quality and motivations.

  • Both of Nick Barlow’s comments clearly point up why an English parliament is a non starter.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Sep '14 - 2:05pm

    Devolution can increase inequality. This is why the Conservatives devo-max offer was greater than Labour and Lib Dems when it came to spending. If financial powers and responsibilities are devolved to northern regions then they will be less able to vote for wealth transfers from the south east. This is how devolution, like some other issues, managed to gain consensus across the left and right.

    I am not anti-devolution, but I certainly prefer a kind of middle way, rather than funnelling lots of responsibilities to the regions. More powers is not necessarily the correct words, because people won’t allow a cake and eat it policy of spending powers without raising responsibilities.

  • Maria Pretzler 11th Sep '14 - 5:49pm

    I think that ‘Devolution on Demand’ is an extremely misguided idea, and I am frankly shocked to read Dinti’s complacent response to the unease expressed in this thread.

    I can see why it might have looked great to a committee of constitutional reform enthusiasts, but in practice, I think it is now putting us in a situation where we, the only party which is instinctively in favour of federalism, have a policy which is simply not workable. I would like to see the policy changed as soon as possible – anybody willing to support a motion for spring conference?

    The fact that we currently have ‘asymmetrical devolution’ should not lead the conclusion that we should have *more* of that. Rather the opposite. This situation has given us the West Lothian Question (I was staggered to find out that devolution-on-demand fans I challenged on this last year were entirely unconcerned about this issue). The policy we now have will give us the West Lothian Question on speed, and a few more problems in addition to that.

    In a way, this is designed to remake the country in the image of the famous LibDem organisational diagram. Do we really want that?

    The purpose of political reform should be to come up with systems which actually serve democracy. The system as proposed last year seems to be set up to confuse voters and to help politicians to avoid responsibility. Look to the devolved nations now and you’ll find that many voters have no idea what the devolved administration does – to the point where both Alex Salmond and Carwyn Jones spook their electorate with horror tales about the fate of their own NHS in the hands of Westminster (of course, in both cases, the NHS is devolved).

    With various regions at different levels devolved to different degrees (on demand), the opportunities for these kinds of games become endless. And since the Welsh media certainly can’t keep up, I don’t see who will keep track of the various powers, and the people using those powers, in various English regions.

    What we need is a federal system where we have as few different levels as possible. I assume that the currently devolved nations will need to be given more devolution than, say, the English regions, at least initially, but I’d like to see Wales and NI to get to the same level as Scotland, and I’d like to see England divided up into regions (after due consultation) which are then devolved to the same level, so that it is absolutely clear what Westminster decides, and what issues are dealt with regionally.

    Everything else is just a licence for politicians to wield power without accountability.

    PLEASE, PLEASE, can we be sensible about this?

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Sep '14 - 6:08pm

    Maria’s comment needs highlighting and listened to. I’ve read the pre-manifesto document and the Power to the People policy document on devolution on demand and it is not fit to take to the country. The idea that when public opinion on certain areas wants devolution you can just give them it is ridiculous for at least these three reasons:

    1. You will have to undo the devolution when demand falls.
    2. The South East will want further devolution too, including taxation and spending, so inequality will increase.
    3. Creating a messy business environment will increase prices.

    Maria makes good points about politicians wanting power without responsibility. We need to get the main party figures from all wings to come out against this “messy” policy and undo it before the general election campaign.

    Regards

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