Scottish devolution was often referred to as John Smith’s unfinished business. It was delivered a few years after his death with the passing of the Scotland Act in 1998 followed by the first election to the new Scottish parliament on 6 May 1999. Much has happened since then. Our political fortunes are presently extremely challenging in Scotland for a variety of reasons: since 2014 we have been the third party in the Scottish parliament. But the institution itself has been successfully established and has grown in importance. With the passing of the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Belfast Agreement devolved institutions were also created in Wales and Northern Ireland.
The 1997 Labour government of Tony Blair has many credits to its name. Delivering lasting constitutional change is one of them. Looking at how the United Kingdom is governed today, significant progress to devolve power has been made everywhere with the exception of England outside London. Progress here, for me, is Labour’s unfinished business.
Opposition parties often talk of radical change, devolving power and putting power in the hands of others. The challenge is to make those messages a reality when they are in office. Labour’s mission today must be to come up with a plan, set out the powers which will be devolved and the mechanism to do it. Then, when we return to power, we will need to deliver the change that completes Labour’s unfinished business.
Devolution has shown us that different political parties can run different institutions in different parts of the UK either in coalitions or on their own and the system adapts. There have in fact been very few disputes about the governance of the United Kingdom between the institutions notwithstanding the present difficulties in Northern Ireland following the collapse of the executive in January 2017.
In working up a policy for devolution in England we first need to ask ourselves what we want to see in terms of the redrawing of the lines of power and accountability. Who should be responsible for what and how should any new structure deliver? Who will have their hands on the levers of power in this new settlement? How do we ensure accountability for those entrusted with delivering new devolved government which is more in touch with the people?
The Conservatives’ devolution agenda for England in recent years has been based on the metro mayor and combined authority model which for all its hype is a rather timid creation with limited additional powers and small sums of money promised over quite lengthy periods of time. It is delivering a confused patchwork of governance which is born more out of lack of vision for local government rather than any real devolutionary zeal.
In contrast to this disappointing approach, Labour needs to be very clear that it wants to see a real shift in power and accountability, with decisions taken in a variety of policy areas in the regions of England by people elected in those regions. The question is then: what should those policy areas be?
As a starter I think the regions of England should have powers devolved in the following policy areas: agriculture and rural development, economic development, education and training, the environment, health services, housing, local government, planning, sport and recreation and tourism. In each of these areas, better decision-making is possible when politicians will be held more accountable locally for the choices they make. The prime minister’s recent announcement of his support for a high-speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds shows exactly why politicians who understand their areas are best placed to make decisions about their region. Johnson’s announcement had been made before but no actual progress has been made. But representatives from the respective regions understand better than anyone else what is really needed – a high-speed rail link from Liverpool to Hull to begin to turbocharge the local economy. Equally, any decision on whether to proceed or not with a tram system linking Leeds and Bradford similar to the one operating in Greater Manchester should be decided by elected representatives in Yorkshire.
Tax-raising powers and budget responsibility should remain with the chancellor of the exchequer and the Treasury. Then, within a framework approved by the UK government more resources and spending powers should be devolved.
To assist with this change in governance, we should create a department of the English regions, with a secretary of state sitting in the cabinet providing an important link between the English regions and the UK government and playing a coordinating role. The department would provide proper ministerial support to the ministerial team in each region and be the vehicle for delivering ministerial decisions.
Objections to further devolution often centre on opposition to electing even more politicians, with all of the salary and election costs that would involve. Indeed plans for a north east assembly back in 2004 were defeated after opponents used an inflatable white elephant to promote their claims that the institution would be an expensive waste of money. But my proposal involves no additional elections and no additional politicians, as the assembly for each region would be comprised of the elected members of parliament of that region alone.
Each regional assembly would be formally constituted after each general election. The first minister for each region would be appointed by the prime minister – but only after they had been elected by the regional assembly. The first minister would have sole responsibility for appointing up to three deputy first ministers and for allocating portfolio responsibilities of their minsters. The first minister would remain in office until the next general election or until they had resigned or lost the confidence of the assembly. In exceptional circumstances such as a breach of the ministerial code or other serious misdemeanour they could be dismissed by the prime minister but not as part of a reshuffle. The replacement would have to be elected by the assembly and no other MP could be appointed to fill the vacancy. Deputy first ministers would remain in office at the discretion of the first minister for the region. The assemblies would provide robust scrutiny of the work undertaken and decisions made by the first minister and their team.
A set-up such as I am proposing would mean that at any one time, ministers with actual power and responsibilities in different parts of England could – and most likely would – be from different political parties but they would all be members of the House of Commons. Opposition MPs would effectively be in government in certain parts of England exercising real devolved power in an assembly that their party was in control of individually or as part of a coalition.
The business of the House of Commons would be arranged so that the regional assemblies would meet either in Westminster or in their respective regions using local town hall facilities as decided by the assembly.
There would of course be some additional expenditure to cover the functioning of the assembly and the ministerial offices. The first minister for each region should have a salary on the level of a minister of state and the deputy first ministers equating to a parliamentary under secretary of state. But there would be no need to set up an assembly headquarters and the ministerial teams would be supported by the civil service. All these costs would be borne by the office of the secretary of state for the English regions and the assembly would have no tax varying or levying powers – or indeed powers to legislate – although as part of the devolution settlement there might be some fees and other charges that would most appropriately be set by the assembly.
English devolution is Labour’s unfinished business and the next Labour government has to deliver it. Here I have laid out some of the proposals which could be looked at in detail as part of the debate the party needs to have in the coming months and years. As well as options for the make-up of regional assemblies, we will need a proper mechanism to decide the actual powers to be devolved in the policy areas I outlined. This is a crucial area and when we return to office, we must have a clear programme for the devolved government England needs.