A more unified approach needed for devolution: Lord Kerslake

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

Lord Kerslake, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution, talks about the emerging themes from the inquiry.

Devolution needs a “guiding set of principles”, PSE has been told, to avoid “retrogressive” steps like imposing a metro-mayor on a place not suited to that governance model. 

The inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution is now properly underway, helmed by Lord Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service (among many other senior roles across the public sector). 

Evidence heard so far by the “far-reaching” inquiry on devolution and constitutional reform (for which the LGA provides the secretariat), has reinforced the view of the panel that “we can’t carry on muddling along as we are at the moment on these big constitutional issues”, according to Kerslake. 

Speaking to PSE following an oral evidence session, he added: “We do need a more coherent and unified approach across the whole of the UK. I think that has been very much reinforced.” 

Multiple witnesses who have spoken to the inquiry, including former prime minister Gordon Brown and LGA chair Lord Porter, have talked about the need for a “guiding set of principles for devolution”. 

These principles could mark out the boundaries for devolution in England and the wider UK in a “much clearer way”, said Lord Kerslake. Some principles might need to be “sacrosanct” to ensure clarity. 

Another finding will come as no surprise to PSE readers – the “strength and consistency” of the call for devolution coming from local government, businesses and the voluntary sector.

“It does feel very much, as an agenda, that its time has come,” said Lord Kerslake. “I think there is a compelling case to look at how we might unify these agendas, between what is going on in the devolved nations and what is going on within England. There is an interconnectedness here that needs to be recognised. Those are emerging themes at the moment.” 

Devolution deals and metro-mayors 

In an earlier interview for the Aug/Sept edition of PSE, Lord Kerslake told us that there may well be a case for a metro-mayor in some sub-regions or individual cities. 

But after hearing evidence as part of the inquiry, he said there are still “quite differing views” about the need for mayors. “A point well made by Professor Vernon Bogdanor [a constitutional expert] was that government perhaps should be clearer about when it sees the need for mayors and when it doesn’t,” said Lord Kerslake. 

“I think it is hard to see how one size is going to fit all here. It might almost be retrogressive if you impose the mayoral model on a place where it clearly isn’t going to work.” 

Devolution deals are generally being seen not as “a conclusion to devolution, but as a starting point”. Mark Lloyd, the LGA’s new chief executive, made a similar observation in his interview with PSE. 

During an evidence session with local authority leaders, Lord Kerslake noted that a theme to have come through is that in the negotiations on devolution, some areas have been declared “off limits” in the discussions. 

“I think, if that is the case, it would be better to be explicit from the start. Wouldn’t it?” he said. 

Overarching powers 

Care minister Alastair Burt MP recently told the Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry on the government’s Devolution Bill that the secretary of state will retain overarching ‘backstop’ powers over devolved health budgets to make sure they stay in line with what the NHS must deliver.

There is already a power in the Bill to recover devolved responsibilities ‘with consent’ from combined authorities, should they be failing to keep up with deals. 

But Burt said: “Of course, there may be circumstances in which that consent may not be forthcoming because of local difficulties, so it is anticipated that the secretary of state may have to have additional powers to ensure that, to prevent any potential failings, the powers are directly returned.” 

PSE asked Lord Kerslake for his view on the matter. “We haven’t discussed that expressly for the panel,” he said. “But I think it goes back to the wider question: what are the ground rules here? 

“If one of the guiding principles is that you have to have a core standard of health and care delivered – and free at the point of use, as far as health is concerned – then government will need to have some reserve powers if those guiding requirements aren’t being delivered. 

“We haven’t discussed that expressly, but it does go back to the question about how much you devolve will apply to everybody and be available to everybody in this country.” 

Constitutional convention 

In an early evidence session focused on devolved nations and the wider devolution agenda, Gordon Brown told the inquiry: “It is important that it isn’t all decided by the political elites who sit in a room like this. It is important that it has representation outside the traditional parties.” 

That would be Kerslake’s own view too, he told us. “We haven’t formed a view yet on the argument for a ‘constitutional convention’ – which is, if you like, a bigger step than setting out some guiding principles for devolution. 

“I think, personally, it is a proposal that does need serious consideration. But as a panel we haven’t formed a view.” 

He added that there will be a private session held after the last public hearing in the new year, where the panel will reflect on the issues raised. “But I wouldn’t want to pre-judge where they will land on the question of a constitutional convention,” said Lord Kerslake. “What I would say is that there have been some quite compelling arguments made in that direction. If you had a constitutional convention, it would clearly have to have a wide range of interests on it – not just simply Westminster.” 

Next steps 

The inquiry’s cross-party panel, drawn from both Houses and the four nations of the UK, started hearing its oral evidence sessions in autumn 2015. 

In the group’s first session it looked at the “big picture” of the devolution agenda, while the second meeting, featuring evidence from local authority leaders, gave a “bottom-up” local government perspective on what they are looking for from devolution and how the devolution deals are progressing. 

At the third hearing, the voluntary, community and business sectors gave their perspective on devolution which, by and large, they favoured – despite having some reservations.  

Next year, the panel hopes to hear evidence from the minister and shadow minister. 

“We also want to look a bit further at the question of devolution within devolved nations. There is some feedback and commentary that devolution to Scotland has not necessarily led to devolution to local government in Scotland,” said Lord Kerslake. “But until we’ve had a chance to talk to people and get their views, I wouldn’t want to speculate at this stage.” 

The inquiry aims to publish its report around March, ahead of the 2016 elections.


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