[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK constitutional machinery and frameworks for intergovernmental co-operation.
It is a pleasure, Mr Wilson, to serve under your chairmanship.
I am a Unionist by conviction. I have an English mother and a Scottish father; two of my children have married people from Northern Ireland; and three of my four children now live in England. I am also a proud Scot. For me, as for many Scots, the Union is personal; it is social; and it speaks to the heart. It is about family; we are literally a family of nations.
I believe that the people of Stirling, and the people of all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, expect their Governments at all levels to work together for the common good of all people. Those of us privileged to serve in the House of Commons have a special responsibility to engage in a relentless mission to see that people’s expectations are met. To that end, I propose that we now need to address inadequacies in the constitutional machinery and frameworks, in order to create a better and more functional Union.
Of course, with devolution comes divergence and I embrace that, where it is needed, but I am not interested in creating divisions and differences for the sake of it. Diverse as the nations and regions of the UK are, we also need to work together and to remain united, and deliberate in our determination to do so.
The United Kingdom has now a fairly complex structure of governance. In academic circles, phrases such as “asymmetrical devolution” are used to describe the Union’s complex governance structures. That is a product of the organic way in which the constitution has developed over time. We have had devolution for Scotland and Wales, which required a new way of working; then we had the Good Friday agreement, which required further changes; and then we added more powers for Scotland and Wales. That has all left us in a position where governmental structures are convoluted, complex and, in my opinion, not entirely fit for purpose.
In Scotland, we have a full Parliament with wide-ranging legislative and executive powers, but the powers of the Welsh Assembly are different, and the same is true of the Northern Ireland Assembly. England is governed by the UK Government. However, there are also emerging and exciting visions of local democracy in England, with regional and metropolitan Mayors working to galvanise communities and to bring democratic accountability closer to the people.
That is very different from the situation in, for example, the United States, or in other federal regimes, where the nature of government at state and national level is derived from a uniform constitution that treats all the constituent parts of the country equally. I am not a proponent of such federalism, because imposing an artificial uniformity on our constitutional arrangements would undermine the diversity that makes the United Kingdom unique. The situation in Scotland is different from that in Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and to argue otherwise is to ignore centuries of history and our present-day realities. So, understanding how these different Parliaments and levels of Government relate to one another, given their different competencies, is vital to this Parliament.
What, then, is the current situation with inter- governmentalism in the United Kingdom? The process is governed by a 1999 memorandum of understanding that set out the intentions for how joint working and co-operation should work. There is also a series of concordats that set out the structure for how devolved Administrations should work with the UK Government to ensure that there is co-ordination on certain issues.
The memorandum of understanding then outlines how the Joint Ministerial Committee should work. The JMC is the main way in which such joint working can happen. There are three main elements: to consider where there are devolved issues that will be affected by non-devolved decision making; to consider where there should be joint working on devolved issues; and the resolution of disputes.
The JMC is high-level, chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by the leaders of all the devolved Governments and the Secretaries of State for each of the territorial offices. In the formative years of devolution—from 1999 to 2004—the JMC hardly, if ever, met. The 1999 memorandum of understanding comes from a time when Labour was in power in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff. That meant that issues could mostly be dealt with through the internal structures and workings of the Labour party.
As with so many things, the way that Labour approached this situation was without any thought for a future that did not involve them in government. Labour assumed it would be in the respective seats of government in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff in perpetuity, and the whole machinery of government was run out of No. 10 or No. 11 Downing Street. Scottish Labour, in the words of a former Labour leader, was run as a branch office of the Blair-Brown axis. In part, that was why Tony Blair once described the power of the Scottish Parliament as being akin to that of an English parish council.
That arrogance in power is what led the people of Scotland to reject Scottish Labour. I remember the days when Conservative voters in Scotland would choose positively to vote for the Scottish National party to get Labour out, and certainly not because of nationalist sympathies. It hardly seems necessary for me to say this, but it is changed days now. The decade since 2007, which followed the end of Labour rule in Scotland and the election of an SNP Scottish Executive, has repeatedly served to show up how inadequate and incomplete the constitutional machinery is. These years have been characterised by growing party political mistrust and division.
Nationalism feeds on discord; it feeds on any grievance that can be created. We saw that last week, when the SNP Members stormed out of the main Chamber of the House of Commons. Theatrics aside, that told the story of how nationalism works. Nationalism works by cynically manipulating imagined slights; it works by stoking our fears and worst instincts. And when there are gaps in the constitutional machinery that should bring Governments and Parliaments together, as I contend there are, those gaps become a wide open space for the manufacture of grievance and division.
Nationalism does not instinctively seek to work co-operatively. I am surprised that even now well-meaning and sincere colleagues from across the House misunderstand the politics of Scottish nationalism. Those colleagues believe that if we are all courteous and reasonable, and show a willingness to compromise to reach an agreement, that approach will be reciprocated.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. Although what he says about nationalism is true, does he agree that at the other end of this equation his party is currently also using this situation to aid its best interests? What we are seeing here is a fight between two of Scotland’s Governments, which serve two political parties and not the people of Scotland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The fractious relationship between the Governments of Scotland serves nobody’s purposes, and it serves no good purpose to have the situation continue.
To be clear, when nationalists walk into a negotiation they are not looking for a way to build a consensus that works for everyone; they would far rather walk out in a huff, having achieved nothing, because that fits with their agenda of conflict and grievance. For them, it is always about the politics and never the outcomes. They would rather have the argument than the solution.
There is no doubt that the nationalists create jurisdictional confusion for their political advantage. If we consider how the public sector in Scotland is run through the civil service and, perhaps more importantly, local health boards and local government, we see that differences between English and Scottish regulatory systems allow a wall to be built around the Scottish public sector. However, when we scratch the surface, we see that the differences between the system in Scotland and the systems in the rest of the United Kingdom are actually not so great. This separation creates separatism; it is moving us apart; and it builds a wall around Scotland.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech; he is speaking very passionately and articulating clearly the challenges that we face in Scotland now, given the new and evolving democratic position that we find ourselves in. However, in my own area in the borders, we have the borderlands growth deal, which is a very good example of having communities on either side of the border facing the same challenges. The Governments are coming together; the councils are coming together; and we will hopefully find solutions and investment. It is very disappointing, therefore, that the Scottish Government have indicated that they might withdraw from the JMC and stop the delivery of these growth deals, which would mean that those communities would lose out on that investment.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the information he brings to the debate. What he describes would be a tragic outcome for everyone, but he underlines the point I am trying to make, which is that the emphasis on differences is not always true. The wall I am describing cements a nationalist agenda of Scottish exceptionalism and difference. It discourages working across borders. The border is used as a barrier to seek to limit the building of partnerships throughout the United Kingdom.
Glasgow City Council has more in common with Manchester and Birmingham City Councils than it does with Argyll and Bute, but they are lumped together incongruously to satisfy a geographic and nationalist imperative. Similarly, the problems of rural health boards are not dissimilar, regardless of whether they are on one side of the border or the other. It is a real shame that the arrangements for the devolved settlements do not contain references to partnership working, other than at ministerial level. Instead, we have created a system that allows for the creation of division and separation, rather than one that encourages partnership and innovation.
The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting propositions on collaborative working at a number of different levels, but the current primary mechanism is the Joint Ministerial Committee. Does he agree that it is currently pointless, as it has no authority? It needs to be put on a statutory footing to give it proper teeth. I am perturbed, because the hon. Gentleman voted down a proposed amendment that would have done that. Why did he do that?
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I welcome his intervention. I will come on to the point he raised. It has also become the norm with the current arrangements that Scotland’s two Governments conduct their business by megaphone rather than by meeting, speaking and perhaps even listening. There is no imperative that means they must sit down and listen to each other, which speaks to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), and that is just not right. Regionalism is a positive example of how things could be made to work.
The recently established metropolitan Mayors by necessity work with different levels of government. They work with the councils across their regions and with the UK Government. That in turn builds a broad-based coalition of partners that seems to work well, criss-crossing local rivalries and party political loyalties for the good of the region. It encourages compromise and the sharing of objectives. Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, must work with Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, and he also must work closely with Conservative Government Ministers. He must negotiate and compromise, as all the Mayors do, but of course none of them are nationalists.
The arrangements for the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies do not encompass that vision of partnering. They seem to me to be tokenistic and designed to create a hierarchy of importance that is not in keeping with a vision of partnership unionism. The history of the JMC is that it meets irregularly on an ad hoc basis, with little or no formal recognition of the value of joint working. There is limited transparency on what happens at those meetings and what difference they make. They are exclusively focused on the Government-to-Government business of the moment. There is no structure for formal departmental or inter-parliamentary working, or for local government agencies or other national agencies to work together. There is so much to be gained by creating those networks and forums as part of the process of the machinery of the Union.
There are examples in the world of how things can be made to work better. The Canadian system is a case in point. It is federal in nature, but the different provinces and territories have different levels of local control, and the parliamentary system has important similarities with that of the UK. The Canadians have a national Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs and Youth, headed by a Cabinet Minister—the so-called Unity Minister. So important is that role to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that he performs it himself. It is not as simple as being a command and control network from the federal Government. Far from it—the Ministry’s remit is far deeper than establishing national guidance or control for the provincial and territorial governments. It is responsible for encouraging joint working between the provinces and territories and the local government agencies.
My hon. Friend has spoken precisely about the Canadian situation. He is coming from a Scottish point of view, but does he see the parallel with our position in Europe? There is an intergovernmental body in existence already, called the Council of Europe. We should be using it more as the framework for the future.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the Council of Europe, and I am going to talk about Europe. I will return to Canada for a moment, though, because there is a plethora of joint working agencies across Canada engaged in educational, infrastructural, economic, health and environmental works. The support mechanism is a secretariat that seems to be independent of the federal Executive. The body is drawn from civil servants from across the Canadian public sector and exists to support intergovernmental co-operation at all levels. It encourages and facilitates meetings, helping provincial, territorial, federal and local government leaders to arrange sessions and meetings on any subject. They call it collaborative federalism, and it encourages a sense of national unity, even in a federation where there are nationalist elements. There are lessons for the United Kingdom here.
I propose a partnership Unionism. At present, we have the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices. It has often been thought that merging them would create efficiencies for the UK Government, but in doing so we would lose a lot of the point of those Departments. The idea is that they give voice to the nations of the Union within the UK Government and are the UK Government’s voice in the nations that they serve. Rather than thinking about merging them and reducing the role of the respective Secretaries of State, it would be far better to think of an entirely better way of working.
There is a statement in the memorandum of understanding of 1999 that says that
“the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for ensuring that the interests of those parts of the UK in non-devolved matters are properly represented and considered.”
Part of the issue here, however, is the role of the territorial Offices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Departments that have a Union responsibility, such as the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade and so forth, depend too much on the territorial Offices. They should not be channelling their activities through a territorial Department; they should be actively involved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a direct basis and to a greater extent. I feel very strongly about that.
The Departments that have an area of responsibility covering the whole of the Union should be active in all the nations and regions of the Union, not only in England. Please do not short-change my constituents. We pay our taxes, elect a Government and have every right to expect that the Union Departments are working for us across the United Kingdom.
Absolutely not. On the contrary, what I am proposing will be another support to the functioning of devolution, because it will bring the nations and regions of the United Kingdom together, so that we can have better governance in all parts of the United Kingdom. As I said earlier, I feel very strongly about the issue.
The Union Departments that work in Scotland should not be working through the prism of the Scotland Office. In the eyes of the Scottish people, there needs to be more to the UK Government presence in Scotland than the Scotland Office. It is not an easy task by any means to operate a territorial Office; the expertise required stretches across all aspects of government, and the territorial offices have relatively small budgets to staff themselves. The expectation that they can have expertise across all aspects of government is unrealistic.
We must also banish any notion of “devolve and forget” on the part of the Departments that serve the whole Union. Can we please ensure that there is no tendency on the part of those Ministers who have a direct responsibility for matters in Scotland to walk on eggshells and tiptoe around issues, rather than authoritatively dealing with them, as they would in any other part of the UK? The people of Scotland want the UK Government to act, and they have every right to expect them to do so. Surely, Ministers of the Crown are not nervous about upsetting nationalists? I can report that I have seen no evidence of such an attitude from the Ministers I have worked with.
Part of the confusion here is a genuine misunderstanding of which Departments are genuinely UK-wide and which Departments are England-only. A renaming of Departments that relate to England to clearly mark them as Departments for England, such as having the “Department of Health and Social Care for England” and the “Department for Education for England”, would help with the demarcation. It may require some rejigging of departmental responsibilities. I find it very difficult to understand how a Department can possibly have both England-only and Union responsibilities. The Home Office, for example, should be the UK Department for Borders and Security; prisons and policing in England should be passed to the Justice Department for England.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am proposing nothing for England. It is up to the people of England to decide what kind of governance they want. I am proposing a better way to operate the Union to serve all parts of the United Kingdom.
My proposal would help the Health and Social Care Secretaries for Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland to sit together in a council of equals and discuss matters of mutual concern, allowing joint working and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. It would be the same for education, policing, transport and a multitude of other issues. The creation of a new and powerful Department of the Union at Cabinet level would help to bind that together and encourage joint working. That is especially important because leaving the European Union will require us to come up with new frameworks that will need to be negotiated between the devolved Governments. Those frameworks would allow for mutual esteem and respect.
Intergovernmental conferences should be a big deal, not an ad hoc tick-box exercise to satisfy a memorandum of understanding. Those in political leadership should be required to hold such meetings regularly and to have a Department that drives a partnership agenda. The Department of the Union should be established with civil servants seconded from across the United Kingdom, not simply from Whitehall, to encourage a culture of mutual respect and the dissemination of ideas throughout the country. Its remit should reach beyond the national Government level to the local level—not in a statutory or interfering way, but in a positive way that encourages Governments and politicians to work together.
The Department would have at its core the principle of early intervention in conflict resolution. It would be designed to ensure that conflict is avoided and consensus achieved before there is any hint of a full-blown confrontation.
I am really interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Given the behaviour of the UK Government towards Scotland over the past few weeks, and last week in particular, it seems to me that they are not particularly interested in what Scotland or Scots have to say.
With the greatest respect, I have never heard such nonsense. The opposite is the case. The United Kingdom Government are determined to ensure that powers repatriated from Brussels go to the Scottish Parliament, and the SNP voted against that last week. We should never forget that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity. He mentioned local government, which is an important aspect of the equation. This is not merely about devolved powers residing in Holyrood; it is a question of the over-centralisation of government in Scotland itself. Scotland is actually the most centralised country in Europe in terms of governance. We have to radically address that distribution of power within Scotland.
I could not agree more. We need to look closely at what has resulted from 11 years of SNP Government in Edinburgh. It is highly centralised and it is denuding our democracy at a local, grass-roots level.
When there is a dispute or an argument, there must be a formal process for arbitration and ultimately for judgment. It is still right and proper that the ultimate judgment in matters of constitutional law should be reserved to the Supreme Court, but such a referral should be seen as failure of the model that I am outlining. We should take the best lessons from the Canadian system and from our experience in the European Union. We should build on the strengths of the EU Commission model to ensure that all parts of the Union are engaged. That may require politicians to think beyond their existing positions and more strategically than they do today.
The EU has also created a series of structures designed to draw the union closer together. The Committee of the Regions was a good example of that, where local government was involved in the decision-making structure. That gave an incentive for local government to get involved and work together across the EU. It helped to draw people together and to forge friendships and working partnerships. We need the same for the UK, and a statutory meeting of local government across the UK would be a good foundation to build that on, supported by a secretariat from the Department of the Union.
My vision is for a system that is underpinned by statute, where an independent body provides a secretariat for intergovernmental working, replicating that which occurs in the Canadian and European systems. It would be founded in a spirit of co-operation, and laws would need to be passed to ensure that it was funded and given the authority to co-ordinate that kind of joint working. We would need to give it the kudos to attract and retain talent, and it would need to be at the heart of the Governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and London.
The ideas that I am presenting are fairly simple ones that would allow the Union to flourish. Learning from the Canadian and EU experience would allow a new partnership and allow Unionism to emerge by stark contrast to divisive nationalism. I love the Union, and it remains under threat by nationalism. Those of us who believe in it have an immovable duty to work together to see that it is strengthened, renewed and remains relevant to the lives of the people of our country. There is something here too for the nationalists who want to see a country where the machinery of government works for the common good of all. It is about our mission to build a better country and a better future.
Today’s debate should be the start of a dialogue. I invite all my colleagues who want to make our country work better to come forward and give their ideas for a realignment of our constitutional machinery. We must work together to resolve our differences and problems, rather than shout at each other over the media or the Floor of the House. I know the public in Stirling and the rest of the United Kingdom would like us to do that. They are fed up of the point scoring and petty politics. They want politicians to be mature, to act maturely and to work together to build a better United Kingdom for the future.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate and under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Wilson. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for the tone and the manner in which he presented the debate. We have seen over the last week or so in this Parliament what can be achieved if people work together constructively, rather than perform petty political stunts that merely fan the flames of what we are trying to fight against.
The hon. Gentleman talked about a fractious relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments, which there certainly is. I made the point in the House this week that we have to try to find a way for both parties to come together, because the current stand-off, particularly on some of the major issues regarding devolution and our withdrawal from the European Union, cannot be sustained in the long term. We have to find a way for both Governments to put aside their problems, to get round the table and to try to thrash out a negotiation. A negotiation has to involve compromise. There have been very few negotiations in history on major issues where both parties have got 100% of what they wanted. There needs to be a willingness for both sides to compromise, and I am not sure at this stage if that ability to compromise is there.
We know the structure of both Governments working together is written down in a 1999 memorandum of understanding. In fact, Tony Blair, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and Jack McConnell the former First Minister said at the time that they wished to remove it, because they did not think that the Joint Ministerial Committee, in the way it had been set up, was constructive and would take things forward. We now have some real problems with devolution. It worked when Scotland was Scottish Labour, Wales was Welsh Labour and there was a UK Labour Government. Government was able to function, probably because of the more informal ways that the Governments could talk, rather than through the formal JMC.
I took umbrage at a bit of what the hon. Gentleman said. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) was right. I tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill that would have put the Joint Ministerial Committee on a statutory footing and set out agendas, minutes, publication, involvement and a mechanism for resolving disputes. The Conservative Government at the time completely dismissed that and voted against the amendment.
During the debate on the Sewel convention, I tabled an amendment that would have taken the word “normally” out of the convention, so the UK Government could not legislate in devolved areas unless they went through the process of the JMC and a formal dispute resolution mechanism. The Opposition have been trying to be helpful this week—indeed, we have been trying to be helpful for a number of years—regarding legislation on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Stirling was not in the House at the time, but his party voted against our amendments.
We have to get off this grievance agenda. I have no problem with the SNP’s stunt of walking out of the Chamber. It elevated an issue to the front pages from pages seven or eight, because we were unable to get media interest in those big issues. I have no problem with that kind of stunt, but does it really serve the interests of the people whom we are here to represent? We have to find a way forward.
The key point is that there is absolutely no trust whatsoever between the Scottish Government and the UK Government at the moment. Until we can find a way of building that trust, the only people who will suffer are the people of Scotland, who voted in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, who voted for the Scottish parliamentary set-up that we have at the moment and who voted for their contribution to the UK Government in terms of the votes in Scotland. The people have spoken and would expect both Governments to get on with it, and will be very frustrated at the moment. I agree with the tone and tenure of what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve. I hope that the Minister will listen to some of those very brave ideas and bring some forward.
I will finish with an example. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Canada, but in the provisions of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, he will find it written down how the north of Ireland and the Republic work together cross-border on a whole manner of issues—how that holds together is one of the biggest concerns in the post-Brexit Britain environment. There are examples out there in Canada and across the globe of how Governments can find formal mechanisms to work together, but there is also one on our border across the Irish sea. If the hon. Gentleman was to bring a ten-minute rule Bill to the House, proposing something written in a legislative form, it would certainly get my backing. I am sure that it would get the backing of the whole House if we could find a mechanism for both Governments to work better together in a more formal setting.
I would say this to the hon. Gentleman: knock on the door of the Secretary of State at Dover House and get him to publish the proper minutes of the Joint Ministerial Committee on the issues of devolution, so that we can find out whether it is the Conservative party or the Scottish National party that is frustrating it. I think that I know the answer to that question already, but the Scottish public deserve to see exactly what is going on. Until we have transparency, we will all be in the dark about how both Governments work together.
It is a pleasure to speak under your direction, Mr Wilson. I congratulate my colleague and constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), on securing this important debate. I will start on a positive note—the recent signing of the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city deal, which is a prime example of what can be achieved when different levels of government work together to achieve for their constituencies.
The key point about devolution in this country is that reserved powers are as important to the devolution settlement as devolved powers. Schedule 5(1) of the Scotland Act 2016 is very specific. Westminster is as vital to devolution as Holyrood. That is why we have directly elected Scottish MPs. If anyone ever doubts the influence of Scotland in Westminster, they should just look at the Conservative Government, which would not be standing if it were not for the seats held by Scottish Conservatives—[Interruption]—within the Conservative party itself.
Devolution has so far been a completely one-way street. With the Bill that is currently in the House, we will have 80 more powers transferred to the Scottish Parliament that have never before sat with Scotland. My hon. Friend raised some important questions about the structure of how we want to govern for our constituencies and for the United Kingdom. Devolution was not meant to build a wall between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It was not meant to separate Scotland off. It was meant to bring power closer to the communities that that power is meant to serve.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that devolution should not be looked at as a wall. Does he agree that we are talking about not just how the United Kingdom operates within a governmental mechanism and how we can devolve governance and politics, but how we can also devolve the economy and employment? An awful lot of the time nationalism feeds on dissatisfaction and unemployment, and that is why we need to try to address the problems that exist right across the United Kingdom.
I could not agree more. I think devolution has been a response to the failures of previous Governments of all colours to serve all nations and regions of the United Kingdom. I will come on shortly to the point that has been raised, and I have raised previously, about the centralisation of power in Edinburgh and how that does a disservice to my constituents and others throughout Scotland.
Looking at the performance of devolved powers, there are very few benchmarks where we can say we are doing better. In health, seven out of the eight targets set by the devolved Administration have not been met. NHS Tayside, which covers a large part of my constituency, is an absolute shambles. Education in Scotland used to be outstanding—a byword for world-class standards—but it is now ranked merely as average, as we fall down in maths, science and reading in international rankings. We want things to be devolved, but when areas are struggling and when Scotland’s economic performance is a full percentage point below that of the rest of the United Kingdom, we need to look at what central Government can do to provide even more support, whether through additional funding or whatever else, to support our constituents.
No one should be forced to choose between being Scottish and British, or English and British, or Northern Irish and British, or Welsh and British. It is an identity that people can choose to adopt. It should not matter wherever someone is born—Scotland and the United Kingdom can be their home. We need to be very clear that devolution should not act as a wall but should be used to pass power right the way through the United Kingdom.
On the centralisation of power in Edinburgh, the Smith commission cross-party agreement, which included the Scottish National party, said that powers would pass from Westminster to Edinburgh to local councils and authorities. That has not happened. Powers have been taken from Westminster and are gathered jealously in Edinburgh, rather than being distributed to support our local councils and constituents.
It was not Scotland alone that won the world wars. It was not England in isolation that launched the NHS. We achieved those big programmes together. Looking forward, we can bring together and champion our 75,000 or 100,000 constituents, the 5.3 million Scots in Scotland and the 800,000 or so in England, and pull together as a total country of more than 65 million to face some of the huge challenges that the entire world faces. We are not better facing climate change alone or becoming smaller. We are not better facing international instability on our own or becoming smaller. We are better doing that together. Governments should support that. Devolution is not a wall. Westminster and every other level of government needs to deliver for our constituents.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on setting the scene so very passionately. It is refreshing to have him and his colleagues in the House to add to our richness of political expression on all sides of the Chamber. It is good to have that. I am an Ulster Scot, with my ancestry in Scotland—I have checked it out and know that to be the case. I am descended from the Stewarts from the lowlands of Scotland. The name Shannon is not an Irish name; it is a derivative of the name Stewart, and I am very pleased to put that on the record.
I understand completely the point of view of the hon. Member for Stirling, and I am sure he will understand my comments within the framework of the current Northern Ireland situation. I am a Unionist, a Democratic Unionist and an Ulster Scot, and we are within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we are better together, all regions and all of us—Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English.
As hon. Members have outlined, the framework for intergovernmental co-operation in its current form came from devolution in 1998. The UK Government have territorial Offices whose function it is to facilitate relations with the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive. The Cabinet Office is also responsible for intergovernmental discussions where matters arise between them. The parent forum for intergovernmental co-operation is the Joint Ministerial Committee, which consists of the respective Heads of Government in the United Kingdom and, where relevant, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but other Ministers may attend in certain circumstances where the relevant areas of policy discussion require it.
As much as I respect and understand my friends and colleagues in this Chamber of all political aspirations and from other regions, the situation that we face in Northern Ireland is so very different, and is so very complex and serious, that I would not be doing my job as the MP for Strangford if I did not stand up and say that we are in a crisis. It is past time that the Cabinet, the Joint Ministerial Council and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland began to take steps to take control of the non-administration of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Northern Ireland.
We are fast approaching the time when that will have to happen. We have school principals from every area of the country—in my constituency and across the whole of Northern Ireland—writing to us as MPs, literally begging someone to come and sort out the funding issue. We had additional money granted in the block grant, and additional money delivered to address issues in health and education, but for some reason we have permanent secretaries who feel unable to allocate additional funds as needed. We achieved the £1.4 billion financial agreement between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party that delivers for everyone of all political aspirations in Northern Ireland, on both sides of the community—that money is for all. The greater good of the nation drove the deal that we made in June last year.
We are looking at country schools that service isolated communities and the cutting of their funding by a full teacher’s salary, which to all intents and purposes closes the doors, while at the same time giving grants for schools that manage to save resources for the following years. Let us allow them to fund a teacher instead of giving grants for not using as much in resources. In my constituency we have teachers from small rural schools bag-packing in Tesco on Saturdays to attempt to raise money for their schools when they should have time off, as is their right. We need a Minister to direct a diversion of funding to staunch the bleeding of our education system and to carry out the surgery that is needed to direct the flow in the right direction. We need direction, which we are not getting from democratically elected Ministers.
My party is happy. There are no red lines preventing us going back into power, but it is clear that Sinn Féin are the obstacle to moving forward. It is time for us not to differ, but instead to look towards the things that we can agree on. That is where we should be. Whenever I talk to some of the Shinners they tell me that they want education and a better health system, but at the same time they draw a red line on the Irish language and other issues that we have some problems with. Since we are rudderless and this place has the ability to step in and step up, that must be done.
I cannot speak for other areas, but this is the place to speak for my constituents in Strangford in Northern Ireland. For the day-to-day running of the country, I urge the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, the bodies that we have heard so much about today, to influence and even instruct permanent secretaries to do the right thing. Decisions must not be made by public outcry, but by reasoned and considered information exchange, and that is not happening in Northern Ireland. Let us use our intergovernmental ability to unfreeze Northern Ireland and make it into the place where we educate our children, fix all of the health issues that are so important and get the operations done. Let our young people get a place in their excellent local university and have job opportunities and a stable future. That was the case some years ago, but that has changed and our modus operandi must change too.
This debate is about the UK’s machinery for the framework of intergovernmental co-operation. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) has approached it from a Scottish perspective and that much of the debate has centred on devolution. But the more I have listened to this debate the more I am convinced that it has implications for our future relationship with Europe. My reason for saying that comes from various perspectives. We have heard that this was about better ways of operating the union, but I think we also need to look at better ways of operating Europe. One of the ways in which we can do that is already in existence as an organisation of intergovernmental co-operation: the Council of Europe. I am pleased that all of the political parties represented in the Chamber have representatives on the Council of Europe. Not a single party here is not represented on the Council of Europe and the issue of devolution does not come up at all in the delegations. We act very well as a UK delegation.
The intergovernmental framework already exists and we already work together on a constructive basis. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling mentioned that it is better to work together, which is absolutely true. The Council of Europe works on the basis of consensus, not on the basis of legislative implications for the various countries there.
The hon. Gentleman is developing the thesis that he alluded to earlier. Does he agree with me that the vast majority of people outside the body politic would assess the progress or otherwise of intergovernmental conference working, whether it be on devolution or Europe, on how it affects them in their local society, how it affects their ability to get a job, and how it affects their schools and all the devolved issues? Those are the criteria by which we have to judge any success or otherwise. Does he agree that that is what the general public would adjudicate on?
I agree that that is how the public would look at it. I think that we have been absolutely useless at telling the public what the Council of Europe does. It operates across almost every main Department of Government in the UK. It operates across the Home Office, with an emphasis on terrorism and security. It also operates across the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport through the recommendations we put forward on football governance, for example. We need to send out a message about what the Council of Europe does and how it operates. It does not dictate laws to countries. Even its conventions are for Governments to decide whether to sign up to, rather than ones that they are forced into. For all those reasons I think that there is a great purpose in the future of our relationship in Europe being based on the Council of Europe.
The Prime Minister said that we are leaving the European Union, but not leaving Europe. She went on to say:
“We should not think of our leaving the EU as marking an ending, as much as a new beginning for the United Kingdom and our relationship with our European allies.”
I do not think that is a new beginning in itself. It is a beginning that can be founded in the Council of Europe. When we have that body in place, why on earth are we trying to reinvent the wheel and not using it for the purpose for which it was intended in 1949?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on securing this debate. He made a characteristically rumbustious speech that might be provocative in some quarters, but at no time can one accuse the hon. Gentleman of not engaging his grey cells, because there was a lot of new stuff and food for thought for us all in what he said.
First, I want to absolutely echo the remarks made physically on my right but politically on my left by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) about the fact that the Joint Ministerial Committee is a toothless tiger. It needs to beef up and be made real and I wholeheartedly endorse the comments that have been made. Secondly, no one knows better than a former Highland councillor or a representative of a Highland constituency just what has happened apropos the centralisation of powers in Edinburgh. The style of government that I see today is dramatically different, believe it or not, from that under Conservative Administrations long ago when there was more opportunity to do things differently and to negotiate with the Government and tailor-make solutions to suit the local area. Thirdly, the point made about Canada is absolutely apt. There is a mechanism there that we should look at because it works.
Some days ago I made a point in the Chamber about how 16 to 18-year-olds can buy knives in Scotland—carving knives or suchlike—and yet across the border in England they cannot. That seems to a lot of people I know, ordinary folk, to be dotty. The point was made to me by a colleague afterwards that knife crime is lower in Scotland. That is all very well, but it still means that someone can go and buy a knife across the border and come back, so that is hardly being a good neighbour. Many people have asked me what the point is in having drunk-driving laws on one side of the border that are different from those on the other. When I drive down to see my sister-in-law who lives in Northumberland, every time—not because I have a drink problem—I think to myself, “I am in England. I can have a pint now and I will not be pulled over and not be done for it.”
On the other hand, this is not at all an anti-devolution speech—before I am accused of making one. I am proud of my 12 years in the Scottish Parliament. Some Members present for the debate attended an event today about the Scottish food and drink industry. The fact that the Scottish Government are looking at a different, tailor-made approach to the obesity problem is wholly laudable, and other regions of the UK can learn from that. That is what I call a proper exercise of devolution, but where there is a mismatch in fundamental laws embracing the entire UK, across borders, we should think carefully.
My second point—to repeat myself—is one that I made on Monday. In addition to the matter of the Joint Ministerial Committee, there is a breakdown between institutions—between Westminster and Holyrood. I said twice in interventions on Monday night that there should be some cross-party mechanism for Back-Bench MPs and MSPs to engage and converse, and to have a dialogue to understand the needs and issues that both institutions face. Let us face it, dialogue never hurts. Some sort of mechanism should be set up, and to that end I wrote this week to Mr Speaker and to Mr Kenneth Macintosh, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. I hope that they will look favourably on the idea of considering some such mechanism. As other hon. Members have asked, what do we gain from dispute between the institutions? Nothing. Who loses? The citizens—the good people of Scotland.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I have fond memories of happy days discussing constitutional machinery and frameworks for inter- governmental co-operation with people on the doorsteps of Edinburgh North and Leith in 2014. How engaged they all were with it. I love a bit of constitutional machinery, and the way it works so well when Governments co-operate for the greater good, as has been said. It is special—an aggregation that is greater than the sum of its parts. Each side benefits when Governments, sovereign in their own rights—none subservient to another and none in a position to overrule another unilaterally—benefit all the peoples of their nations by agreeing a way forward. That is a description of the EU, by the way, as has been mentioned. A supranational organisation with co-operation between nations delivers benefits for all that no nation could achieve on its own. They put aside their differences and any petty mistrust they may have, agree common rules and laws and tear down barriers. None has the right to impose on another and none can say “We will keep this power here,” or “You don’t know enough to do this yourself”.
That is the difference between confederal co-operation and controlled devolution; between sovereignty being pooled only with the consent of individual nations and power devolved being power retained; and between parity of esteem and patronising guff from a Parliament and Government that think they are above all else. That is the difference between the Canadian federal system of which the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) spoke so glowingly and the uneven, unfair devolved set-up that promises many rights but delivers few. I find it difficult to envisage the Canadian federal Government dictating laws to the Governments of the provinces in the way that the UK Government aggressively and contemptuously forced measures through last week.
In using the Canadian example I think the hon. Lady misinterprets what my hon. Friend was saying. He was talking about a mechanism. The histories of our two countries are very different. I should hope that the hon. Lady would appreciate that. Canada was separate states that then came together in union. We are one unitary state with devolution taking a part. It is a completely different constitutional framework. I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that.
I perfectly understand that, but I do not think I should have to accept it. It is an odd argument to make.
Of course, we could have had the debate in a forum where it matters—in debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. If only there were a Government with class and confidence in Whitehall, rather than a collection of desperate individuals who act with all the finesse of a tap dancing wildebeest. The sheer cowardice displayed in refusing to programme properly for debate on devolved issues was as appalling as the contempt shown by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—of all offices—who made sure that he talked away any chance of a contribution from anyone else, before leaving the Chamber with a grin, and a spring in his step.
As to the point made by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) about the different histories, I am unaware—perhaps the hon. Lady can enlighten me—but was not there a union of the two crowns, in the Acts of Union, between Scotland and England?
Yes, there was indeed. There was a union of the crowns in around 1605. [Interruption.] Forgive me—1603, indeed, under James VI.
Surely there can never have been a Government so tone deaf about such a crucial constitutional debate as the one who decided that what I have described was the way to handle things. When we think back through the list of Prime Ministers who have navigated their way through Parliaments in this building there are some numpties but there are few who would have made such a breathtaking mistake as to allow that contempt to show so openly, and even fewer who would not have been advised well by others around the Cabinet table of the danger into which they were putting themselves—the Government and the United Kingdom that they so preciously guard.
The current Prime Minister, one of the least able of all recent holders of the office—worse even than Gordon Brown—is poorly advised by her colleagues, ill advised by her staff and not advised by the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is posted missing—not quite absent but certainly not present. He is not engaged in Whitehall on Scotland’s behalf, but is busy in Scotland on Whitehall’s behalf.
Thank you, Mr Wilson. Yes, I am perfectly aware that the people of Scotland, or some of them, certainly, will be watching. I am not sure that I personify the kind of nationalism of which the hon. Member for Stirling constantly tries to portray the SNP as proponents. Of course I am an Australian, and half English. He might be advised to remember that.
If George Younger were Banquo the current Macbeth would wonder what he was on about. Younger’s boast that UK Government decisions on Scotland were made in Edinburgh, not London, would never pass the lips of the current Scotland Secretary. His constitutional machinery has broken down. He is not Scotland’s man in Whitehall, or even Whitehall’s man in Scotland. He is simply Whitehall’s voice in Scotland—a dunnerin brass. He is the propaganda man under whose tenure Scotland Office spin doctor spending has gone through the roof, reaching three quarters of a million pounds this year. On his watch advertising spending on social media has become a Scotland Office priority, excluding people who have an interest in Scottish independence from a marketing campaign trying to suggest that Scotland needs the UK more than we need the EU, but including people with an interest in RAF Lossiemouth in a campaign about the budget. Then, of course, there was the online advertising campaign that was run entirely in his constituency.
The UK Government talk a lot about Scotland having two Governments, and about how they should work together, but there is a chasm between the suggestion that there is still a respect agenda and the reality, where a Secretary of State uses his office of state to attack Scotland’s Government, denigrate the politicians who are trying to improve Scotland, and undermine the very fabric of devolution. We have seen a sustained and unrelenting attack on the choices that Scots have made—and on none more than the decision we made to stay in the EU. We have seen the disregard, disrespect and contempt in which the UK Government has held those choices.
I would be perfectly happy to speak about the suggestion of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on some future date.
Scotland’s Parliament voted for the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill; Scots MPs wanted to debate the implications of the EU question for devolved Administrations; the Scots Government offered compromise and conversation, and at every step the UK Tory Government turned a sneering, contemptuous face away. The constitutional machinery and the frameworks for intergovernmental co-operation on these islands will work only if the political will is shown, if there is mutual respect, and if they are allowed to. They do not work, and that is the fault of Whitehall Ministers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I had hoped that more Members would be present today, but I realise that this feels a little like a break-out group from the main plenary in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
I have two preliminary points. First, the last time I replied to the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) in a debate that he initiated in Westminster Hall, I said that I would not congratulate him because I felt that he was being extremely partisan in using this forum for debate to attack the Scottish National party. On this occasion, I welcome the fact that he has initiated this debate, and I congratulate him on the way that he conducted himself during the first half of his speech. There were moments when he perorated on constitutional and democratic theory, and I would respect that in any debate in this Chamber. Unfortunately, he got ahead of himself. He could not really help himself, and he went into his usual rehearsed invective against my party, the Scottish Government and, I suppose by implication, the 40% of the Scottish electorate who support what we argue for. That was a bit of a shame. I feel that he let himself down at the end, but there we go—something is better than nothing.
My other preliminary point concerns what a number of Members have said about the events of last week, which they described as some sort of theatrical parliamentary stunt, or apparent walkout, by my party. That situation arose last Wednesday because of what had happened the day before, when we were given 19 minutes to discuss all the consequences of the Lords amendments to the Brexit Bill in the context of Scottish devolution, Welsh devolution, and the whole question of Ireland and the Irish border. Nineteen minutes—one minute for every year that devolution has existed. I think everyone will agree that that was woefully inadequate; I hope that even the Minister will agree with that. When the leader of my party tried to protest about that lack of—
I will take your guidance, Mr Wilson, but I am responding to the debate and those accusations were made. I want to put on the record that we attempted to protest about that lack of opportunity to represent our constituents, and I feel that a better Prime Minister would have acknowledged that and provided more time. Instead she was dismissive of the leader of my party, who then got into a row with the Speaker who expelled him from the House. I do not know what else we could have done at that juncture except walk out in solidarity.
I fear not. I suspect that the Chair does not want us to get into a discussion about the events of last Wednesday.
Let me turn to the motion before us. It is good that we are discussing this issue now, because it is topical and relevant. We are in the middle of a process that is all about relations between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom. Government Members have suggested that when I use phrases such as “power grab”, not only am I over-egging the pudding, but I am completely misrepresenting the position. Apparently there is no power grab whatsoever; there is a powers bonanza with a huge list of powers being given to the Scottish Government—indeed, that list was read out in the Chamber last week. From the Labour Benches, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) says, “Actually, you are both wrong. It is neither a power grab nor a powers bonanza. Those are partisan arguments from two parties, one in government in Scotland, and one in government in the UK.”
I would like to test the arguments about a power grab. First, one must distinguish between responsibility for a particular area, and the power to execute and change policy in that area. It is proposed that the Scottish Government should get a list of additional responsibilities after powers are repatriated from Brussels post-Brexit, but they will have much less authority and power than they currently have to do anything about those responsibilities. In 24 major areas—the most significant ones—the way that the Scottish Government discharge their responsibilities will be subject to a United Kingdom framework. We do not know the details of that framework because the discussion has not even got that far. So far in the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, and other forums, there has been a discussion on the principles of how those arrangements might work, but it is the principles that are the problem.
Let me illustrate that by an example. Suppose after Brexit, we have a joint committee of the United Kingdom, involving the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations, to discuss agricultural policy. In that body, the interests of Scottish farmers would be represented by the Scottish Government or their appointees, and likewise for Wales and possibly Northern Ireland. The interests of English farmers would be represented by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—a Westminster Department. Why? Because there is no other body to do that for English farmers. There is no English Government or representative for English farmers.
I agree that English farmers need to be represented thoroughly in those discussions. The problem is that when there is a difference of opinion between the components of those arrangements, DEFRA will decide what happens. As well as advocating for the interests of one party, it will sit as judge and jury in deciding what happens for everyone else. That effectively means that this Parliament—Westminster—always gets to dictate what happens to the devolved Assemblies. There are two potential ways round that. One is to find another way of representing English farmers, such as by having an English Parliament or some other body, and the other is to allow DEFRA to continue to do that, but to have an independent arbiter as part of the arrangements that can arbitrate in disputes, supported by all parties and according to an agreed set of rules. That is exactly the proposition that the Scottish Government put forward in the JMC, but it was dismissed by the Westminster Government. We have therefore stalled the discussions about joint arrangements because there is no agreement in principle. We must return to the realisation that if we are to make this work, there must be a partnership between the component parts of the UK.
I do not accept for a minute that we need such joint arrangements to dictate uniform policy all the time, although there will be times when a case for that can be made. Sometimes, however, it is simply a matter of co-ordination. What does it matter if some things differ in different parts of the United Kingdom? Perhaps we can benefit if one Administration were to go further, while others might like to take see their time and see whether something works.
A smokescreen is being presented that claims that we cannot have the type of system I suggest because it would affect the United Kingdom’s ability to undertake trade deals. I think that is nonsense. No one is arguing for executive authority over farms and fisheries in Scotland to frustrate a United Kingdom trade deal. Let me illustrate that, because at the moment there are differences. Take liquor retail, for example, which I worked in before I became a Member of the House. At the moment there are completely different regulations north and south of the border. For example, the previous licensing Act prohibited the use of incentives to buy alcohol through discounting—we cannot have a three-for-two offer in Scotland.
I am sorry, Mr Wilson. I thought I had 10 minutes, but I will bring my remarks to a close. At the moment, retailers and wholesalers in Scotland have different point of sale presentations, and different packaging on products. That is really not a problem—people are trying to make it one but it does not exist.
Finally, my beliefs have been caricatured and mis- represented in this debate. SNP Members have been called “nationalists” in the same sort of breath with which one might describe a pervert or somebody who has something wrong with them. Mine is a legitimate belief and not something that seeks to divide people—far from it. It is something that seeks to bring people together and allow them to exercise their democratic expression. What it boils down to is a belief that the people who live in Scotland should be the ones who control what happens in Scotland. We wish that power for the Scottish people in order to engage better with our neighbours. We seek not to put up fences but to break them down, and to have better arrangements for the whole island and the whole continent. In order to do that, people in Scotland must have the authority to make those deals and strike that mission for themselves.
On a point of order, Mr Wilson. I fear that we will be voting at that time.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I compliment the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) on securing this debate. It is almost as though it was meant to take place this week, given recent events. However, I am mindful that it would have been unnecessary if the suggestions that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) made and the amendments that the Labour party tabled relating to the operation of the JMC and the Scotland Act 1998 were taken on board, but here we are.
We are discussing the constitutional machinery and frameworks for intergovernmental operation at a time when it has never been so evident that they are fundamentally broken. In particular, they are not working well between the UK and Scottish Governments. Over the past few weeks, we have seen behaviour that people in Scotland find somewhat distasteful. Officers of government have not come forward when we have needed them to do so. The Secretary of State indicated that the UK is not a partnership, and that Scotland is just part of the United Kingdom—not helpful language, in the context of this debate—and the Scottish Parliament was overruled. I do not think anyone can disagree with that analysis of where we are. There is a general feeling that Scotland’s voice is not being heard in the Brexit process. Again, I do not think anyone could disagree with that. We have witnessed walkouts and the Secretary of State going AWOL from the Dispatch Box. Many Members have been trying to foster dialogue, but the cancellation of two JMCs in recent weeks shows that is not happening.
Once again, I have come to the Chamber with some constructive proposals to improve the situation. The Joint Ministerial Committee is completely and utterly impotent. It can be called to meet only at the Government’s behest. It did not meet for eight months—those were eight months of lost opportunity, in which work could have been done to avoid some of the issues we face today—and we have missed two meetings in the past few weeks. We do not have minutes of the meetings. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) talked about arbitration. If minutes were published, we would all have had the opportunity to contribute to that debate. Even when the meetings take place, they have no statutory underpinning, which is a fundamental flaw. I do not believe that, in this modern and open democracy, that is how we should conduct discussions between our Governments. It must change.
Labour offered a viable solution during the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill debates. We want the JMC to be put on a statutory footing, and we want it to produce a report and minutes. We want it to report to the Commons, and we want every single member and Government represented on the committee to be kept informed about and consulted on the UK’s Brexit negotiations at every turn. However, that proposal was rejected by the Conservative Government, who appear to have absolutely no understanding of devolution or of the fact that the tactics they have been deploying are fuelling the frustrations that the hon. Member for Stirling referred to.
The amendments that my fellow Scot, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, proposed to the withdrawal Bill would have established a council of Ministers—an advisory body bringing together Ministers from the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. That would have helped to ensure that the devolved Administrations and the advisory panel could make recommendations that the Government were required to take account of and make provisions to implement. It is important to make it clear that this is not about frustrating Brexit; it is about recognising that the current settlements are not working. On the back of Brexit, it is even more important that these mechanisms work clearly and effectively, and that legislators across our countries are co-ordinated.
On Monday, we heard about the desire of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) to see a parliamentary council made up of Members of this place and of the Scottish Parliament. We should look at that proposal carefully, as we believe it could take the heat out of the argument we are currently involved in.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Let me just say that I did ask people to be back here for 4 o’clock; if there had been another vote, we could still have come back. We should have started at 4 o’clock. It is now six minutes past, and the next debate is being delayed. The only person who turned up for 4 o’clock was the Minister. Lesley Laird, would you like to continue your speech?
Thank you, Mr Wilson. Before the Division, I pointed out that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross had highlighted a proposal during the week. I am asking that we all look at that proposal carefully. We believe that it could take the heat out of the argument in which we are currently involved. But what is vital is that any council of the type that we are discussing has some authority, because if it does not, we are back to square one, with the UK Government holding all the cards.
I have come to the conclusion that the UK and the Scottish Government have been approaching this all wrong. Rather than trying to rectify the root cause of the problem, they are trying to tackle the inevitable outcomes of a flawed system. That will happen again and again on the Trade Bill and on every single, and subsequent, piece of Brexit legislation, so today I would like simply to do one thing. I urge the Minister to get the UK and Scottish Governments around the table. The difference is that this time it is not to argue about the intricacies of one clause of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Instead, we must look at the fundamental problems with our current constitutional arrangements and establish how we can improve them for the benefit of the people we are here to serve.
We believe that the talks could form a memorandum of understanding between the Governments about where we go from here and how we address the real concerns that have arisen about devolution in the UK. Then, and only then, should we start trying to deal with the minutiae. It is time to break the stand-off and come to an arrangement that will work for all partners of the United Kingdom in the long term. The Labour party stands committed, as it has always done, to facilitating and engaging in the talks. I sincerely hope that the Minister and the UK Government can give us the requested assurances today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson.
I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) for requesting the debate, and I shall of course be sure to leave him time to respond to what has been said. He has prompted a rich exchange on intergovernmental relations, and I thank him for doing so. I am also grateful to other hon. Members for all the contributions that have been made.
This is, after all, a timely debate, considering various recent events, but I shall preface my remarks on the subject by thinking about the principles that we operate on in our constitution, such as it is. We do not have a codified constitution such as Canada’s, to provide a model for other countries around the world to use. Instead, we have the product of organic history, as my hon. Friend said. We have a flexible approach that allows us to respond as circumstances demand and, crucially, to reflect the different ways in which we have, across the four nations of the United Kingdom, reached today’s point.
I was conscious of the remarks with which my hon. Friend began. He said that we ought not to aim for artificial uniformity, and that we should not ignore either the history of how we got here or the present-day realities. That was a very helpful reminder of the principles that we might use to approach today’s debate. How do we keep the structures that we have fit for the future? That is the question on which I wish to offer some thoughts to the Chamber.
Our exit from the European Union of course prompts a range of extremely challenging considerations. We need to ensure that our statute book continues to function, to examine those areas of policy in which EU law has created consistent UK-wide practices to date, and to ensure that our intergovernmental ways of working continue to be fit for purpose. Crucially, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we need to safeguard the integrity of our precious Union—I, too, am a strong believer in that.
It is imperative, as the UK leaves the EU, that all the Administrations of the UK benefit from a unified approach. That is only possible through the strength of our relationships and our joint working. The Joint Ministerial Committee structure that has been discussed today provides that but, while it has served us well, it is still evolving. That is important, and there is a very current example of that.
Recently, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), and I chaired an additional forum with the devolved Administrations under that structure—that was only on 24 May—and we look forward to the next one soon. In itself, that is an example of the flexibility in our constitutional arrangements that let us convene that group fast and effectively.
We have found ourselves in times that our colleagues in the devolved Administrations agree are not normal, but the Government are absolutely committed to working closely with those Administrations to ensure full engagement and collaboration across the breadth of what we need to do to leave the EU. That was very obvious during the months that were spent working with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and Northern Ireland civil servants on revised proposals for the EU withdrawal Bill, which the Welsh Government have confirmed safeguard devolution and the future of a successful United Kingdom.
The ways in which we work with the devolved Administrations are supported by departmental structures inside the UK Government. For example, as part of my own Department, there is a thing called the UK governance group, which brings together the whole of the UK Government’s work on constitutional and devolution issues under the oversight of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It brings together the Cabinet Office’s constitutional work, the Scotland and Wales Offices, and the office of the Advocate General, and it works closely with the Northern Ireland Office. We can therefore conduct that work to strengthen and maintain the Union across all Departments as a shared responsibility. That is very important, allowing us to have detailed expertise and, crucially, to hear the voice of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland at the very highest levels of Government through the Secretaries of State who relate to those Offices.
As well as getting on with our immediate business—not least leaving the EU—and considering the structures that facilitate that, we must also look to the future. As hon. Members will know, our departure from the EU will result in a significant increase in the decision-making powers and responsibilities of the devolved Administrations. New responsibilities will go to Edinburgh, Cardiff and—once a new Executive is formed—Belfast. In some of those areas, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations will continue to work closely in frameworks across the whole of the UK. That will be done through principles that have been agreed through all the devolved Administrations.
As we set up those arrangements, one thing is clear: the success of each of them surely will rely on the strength of our relationships and of the partnerships and collaboration that have been a theme of the debate. It is so important that we work together to put arrangements in place that stand the test of time. We must seek to achieve that in order to provide certainty for people and businesses living and operating in the UK and the flexibility to adapt should that be needed.
Hon. Members considered during the debate how we can improve existing intergovernmental structures. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling in particular for laying out his vision, but I also note the suggestions by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) about the Council of Europe. Let me also take a moment to thank the Select Committees of both Houses and of the devolved legislatures, as well as academics, for their suggestions about this subject. This is, as I said, a rich and timely debate.
The UK Government recognise the need to ensure that our structures are adaptable and fit for the future. The Prime Minister led a discussion about this very issue at the plenary meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee in March, at which Ministers agreed to review existing intergovernmental structures and the memorandum of understanding. That review rightly provides us with an opportunity to look carefully at the current ways of working between the different Administrations. It means we can learn from the existing arrangements that work well, listen to the ideas that have been put forward today, and improve less effective structures as we put our future frameworks in place.
We have to ensure that intergovernmental structures and agreements remain adaptable enough to address the interests of the four Governments and their people at any given time. As we do so, we should continue to reflect on our unique circumstances—the different settlements and the constitutional history that led us to this place. The UK is not Canada, after all—close friends though we are. We can certainly learn from other countries, but it is important that we get this right.
I thank the Minister for her remarks, and all the Members who participated in the debate. It was lively and robust, as one would have anticipated, but there was also a huge degree of agreement that we need to work together to improve the processes by which our country works. Only when all parts of the United Kingdom, all levels of government and all the Parliaments and Assemblies work together will we be able to achieve the great things we all hope for for our country. Ultimately, that is tied up with the prosperity and wellbeing of our people. They sent us here to do that, and we must set our minds to that task.
I look forward to further engagement and discussion with Members across the House about these ideas and proposals. I hope that we can come together to reach an outcome that stands the test of time, as the Minister described. I agree with her that there have been many helpful contributions to the debate about this issue, principally by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has done some fabulous work. We need to build on all that to secure the future of the United Kingdom and an ever strengthened and better Union.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK constitutional machinery and frameworks for intergovernmental co-operation.