On Monday, the Lords debated reports from the Constitution Committee on The Union and Devolution and Inter-Governmental Relations in the UK. I spoke and used the occasion to pick up on a theme common to both, namely the failure of government to look at the relationship between different changes to the constitution. I argued, as I have for some time, that successive governments have undertaken constitutional change without having a coherent view of the constitution they consider appropriate for the United Kingdom. Some governments have promoted changes, justifying each on its particular merits, and others have engaged in a fire-fighting approach to pressures for change. There has been no attempt to look holistically at the constitution and delineate the basic principles that underpin it.
I mentioned that I had been asked to pen an article entitled ‘Constitutional change in the UK; unfinished business?’ My response was to say I thought it was more accurate to refer to never-ending business, as unfinished business suggests there is an end point. As governments have no clear view of what they are working towards, there is no obvious end point. We will end up with a constitution that is the sum of disparate and discrete changes.
As is clear from the reports, there is a structural feature militating against looking at the constitution as a whole. There is no Cabinet minister with dedicated responsibility, there is no Cabinet committee on constitutional change. If anything, things are going backwards rather than forward. (There was a Cabinet committee, though that only met once in nine months.) It is left to individual ministers to consider the implications of change for citizens. Cabinet therefore is in response mode, waiting to discuss specific proposals or problems as they arise. This is not a desirable situation.
I asked the minister to delineate the principles underpinning constitutional change and what plans there were to restructure government to enable it to address such change. The minister, Lord Duncan, was making his maiden speech in responding to the debate (which meant he was listened to in silence and without interruption). His speech was fluent and exceptionally well delivered. It also gave nothing away and addressed neither question.