Motion to Take Note
My Lords, the business we are about to begin is very important and there is a real desire to hear from every contributor. However, time is tight so, in the nicest way possible, I ask noble Lords to adhere to the time allocated to them. When the Clock reaches five minutes, I will stand up to maintain order in the debate.
My Lords, I begin with a word of thanks to those Cross-Bench colleagues who voted for the Motion to be debated. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is to reply to the debate for the Government. In view of our happy co-operation in former lives, I hope that I may refer to him as my noble friend on this occasion. I see from the speakers’ list that I am allotted 15 minutes in moving the Motion. That is an unimaginable luxury but, in view of the long list of speakers, I shall try not to use all that time and so perhaps offer a little elbow room to other noble Lords. I am extremely grateful to the Government Chief Whip for the half-hour extension to the debate.
The Motion is couched specifically in terms of the hazards to the union posed by Brexit, but the seeds were sown long before. We have a worrying habit in this country of doing constitutional change in bits, as the occasion serves, but with little overall intent or co-ordination. I have seen the process at close quarters for 46 years, so I entirely understand how this has come about. The Government, often incoming, have their priorities and wish to demonstrate their authority. The business managers wish to make rapid progress with focused proposals. They do not much like Parliament going into what might be called seminar mode. And of course, there is the ever-looming phenomenon of “Events, dear boy, events”.
The result over several Parliaments is that we are left with a patchwork. Nowhere is this clearer than in the devolution of powers to different parts of the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different models of devolved government. They have developed independently and subject to the successive pressures of the moment; no one, I think, would regard any of them as wholly successful. Moreover, they are characterised by a sort of imperial condescension from the centre—from Westminster and Whitehall, but especially from the latter—and they are inconsistent. As a Welshman by birth and title, I think I may ask why Scotland and Northern Ireland can set their own rates of air passenger duty but Wales cannot. Indeed, why are justice and policing devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland but not in Wales? I am glad that my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd is addressing that question through the work of his commission. England, the largest part of the UK, accounts for some 85% of United Kingdom GVA and a little more in terms of population and GDP, yet, with the exception of London and a few city mayors, it has been largely omitted from these changes. Of course, that poses a pressing but ever more intractable “English question”.
I have described an unsatisfactory and probably unstable system that has come about through a variety of political pressures and aspirations, often worthy in themselves but with unco-ordinated and piecemeal results. Were we not now set to leave the European Union, in any event, significant centrifugal forces in the years ahead would put the integrity and stability of the UK’s devolution settlement at risk. The profound Brexit changes now in contemplation will, I suggest, only increase that risk. I am sure that noble Lords taking part in the debate will have many expert perceptions of how the months ahead may put further strain on the union. I note that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee has described our territorial constitution as “in flux” and our European Union Committee has said that,
“the European Union has been, in effect, part of the glue holding the United Kingdom together”.
What are the main hazards? The first is the Brexit process itself, bearing in mind that in the referendum, two of the constituent parts of the UK voted differently from the other two and differently from the overall result. Secondly, the repatriation of powers will be contentious. Central government will want to protect the UK-wide single market by retaining substantial powers in London, but Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast will not see it like that. Also, the repatriation process will, I think, take longer than anyone at the moment predicts, which is not going to help. The complex exchanges over the Scottish and Welsh continuity Bills and the referral of the Scottish Bill to the Supreme Court demonstrate that there are serious unresolved tensions. The Scottish constitutional relations Secretary has referred to “constitutional vandalism” and has said that he,
“could not conceive of circumstances”,
in which the Scottish Parliament would give its consent to further UK Brexit-related legislation.
Our departure from the EU will intensify debate about the fair funding of the different parts of the UK. It is a commonplace to say that we must move on from the Barnett formula, but it is not yet clear how we should do so. In Northern Ireland, the issues of borders and backstops are already causing great concern and contention, and lurking behind those issues is the aspiration of some for reunification. There is also the risk, identified by the Scottish Government, that future customs arrangements might give Northern Ireland a competitive advantage among the parts of the United Kingdom.
In Scotland, a significant proportion of those who supported independence in 2014 did so on the basis that an independent Scotland would or could become a member state of the EU. The UK having left the European Union would, in the case of Scotland, remove the long-standing unwillingness of the EU to countenance subnational aspirations, as would still be the case with Lombardy, Catalunya, Flanders and so on. This might be a seductive prospect in the context of any indyref2.
Intergovernmental relations within the United Kingdom are the concern of the Joint Ministerial Committee, which has now been in existence for 20 years—20 years this year, actually. This should be the key forum for the discussion of developing relations, but both the Scottish and the Welsh Governments have expressed dismay at the way it is operated. Her Majesty’s Government have the opportunity to make this a much more effective mechanism to support the Brexit process. I trust that this is something that will receive close attention, as recommended by our EU and Constitution Committees and the equivalent committees in Scotland and Wales. I hope that in his reply to the debate, the noble Lord will be able to tell us the Government’s current thinking on how the JMC might be overhauled.
The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has suggested that separate English representation on the JMC would be a way of addressing the English question, although how this would be achieved in practice is not entirely clear. It is a pleasure to pay tribute to the work of the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit, which brings together the chairs and convenors of the committees scrutinising Brexit at Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff with, understandably in the current circumstances, the participation of officials from Belfast as observers. The forum, which happens to be meeting at Westminster today, offers a mutually supportive and constructive approach which so far has not, I think, quite been replicated in the JMC, which the forum has described as “not fit for purpose”.
Noble Lords may be chafing slightly at my listing a litany of problems without any suggestion of how they might be cured. In the excellent debate in your Lordships’ House before Christmas, there were calls for a constitutional convention or commission. In replying to that debate, the noble Lord who is now on the Front Bench said that the wide-ranging nature of the issues raised meant that any convention looking into them would take years to do them justice. I have a lot of sympathy with his point of view. It would be hard to argue that such a convention should be anything other than comprehensive, which might further reduce the likely glacial pace of such an initiative. Time is not on our side.
I do not suggest that the Act of Union Bill, which I introduced in October, has all the answers, but at least it seeks to address the problems in an holistic way. I must be careful not to offend against anticipation—this is a debate on the Motion before us, not on the Second Reading of the Bill—but perhaps, with your Lordships’ permission, I may say a few words about it.
The Bill is the result of the work of the Constitution Reform Group, which consists of members of all the major parties, including the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, both of whom are in their place. The group is convened and chaired by Lord Salisbury, a former distinguished Member and indeed Leader of your Lordships’ House, and the Bill has been drafted by the outstanding parliamentary draftsman Daniel Greenberg. It seeks to replace the present top-down method of devolution with a bottom-up method, in which the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—and perhaps the regional parts of England—would decide which powers they wished to pool for greater solidarity and effectiveness. It would replace the central imperial condescension, to which I referred earlier, with a devolution settlement properly owned by its participants. It would also include something perhaps missing from the present arrangements: the R word—respect.
The Bill is comprehensive but it does not attempt to provide a full written constitution. It does not, for example, touch those parts that work perfectly well, such as the courts and the judiciary. But it does seek to address the areas of difficulty, some of which I have outlined. It would not try to bind a subsequent Parliament—no Bill can do that—but it offers an overarching settlement with an indication of how primary legislation of, as it were, the second tier could fill in some of the detail. And there is a lot of detail to be filled in. In a sentence, it aspires to be a plan B. As each day passes, I become more and more convinced that we need a plan B.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane. He and I made our maiden speeches on the same day and he speaks with the greatest authority on constitutional matters.
Brexit raises fundamental issues, not least the question of trust in democratic institutions here and right across Europe. It is absolutely right, therefore, to consider afresh governance within the UK. Brexit is seen as, at best, a challenge to the stability of the UK and, at worst, leading inexorably to its break-up. However, the picture is much more complex. The biggest threat to the union hitherto—the 2014 Scottish independence referendum—took place at a time when no one thought Brexit a serious possibility and after 40 years of EU membership. That should give us all pause for thought. Yes, continued membership of the EU was an argument in the 2014 referendum, but it was neither a primary nor decisive one. Currency and fiscal questions were much more important. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts since the 2016 vote to weaponise Brexit to justify a second Scottish independence referendum have so far failed. Support for independence remains at or less than the 45% level registered in the 2014 referendum. Why might this be?
First, there are around 400,000 yes voters in Scotland who support Brexit. Secondly, linking Scottish independence to EU membership is a hard sell for many nationalists. In their minds, throwing off the yoke of Westminster for that of Brussels is not the most persuasive pitch. Thirdly, if the Brexit negotiations demonstrate how difficult it is to leave a 40 year-old union, they also highlight how fraught it would be to disentangle a 300 year-old partnership. Alex Salmond’s confident assertions that Scottish independence could be negotiated in 18 months, incurring just £200 million in set-up costs, seem even more fantastical today than they did at the time. Nevertheless, the risks and challenges to the union should not be underestimated. However, the key point, which the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has already made, is that renewing the UK’s territorial constitution is necessary irrespective of Brexit.
The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has proposed a new Act of Union. I sympathise with its underlying purpose to provide a coherent UK framework within which powers are exercised. However, I am sceptical of federal-like solutions. First, there is the problem of England. No federal state in the world has one component part representing 85% of the whole population or has as few as four federating units. There is also scant evidence that this is what people in England want. The British Social Attitudes and Future of England surveys offer little sign of a growing sense of English identity. Attitudes have hardly changed in the past 20 years. England’s laws decided by English MPs is, in surveys, more popular among voters than either creating a separate English Parliament or a set of regional assemblies.
Secondly, there is the problem of the SNP Government in Edinburgh. I have difficulty seeing SNP Ministers agreeing to renew their constitutional marriage vows in a new Act of Union when their raison d’être is to sue for divorce. Moreover, a big-bang approach as described simply provides the SNP with a fresh platform to argue for more powers, and risks hollowing out the UK, when the Scottish Government are struggling to use the powers they already have.
A more incremental approach is required. Over the past 20 years significant powers have been devolved to Holyrood, Cardiff and Belfast. However, less attention has been paid to the glue—the institutions and mechanisms —that holds together the UK. Reform here has not kept pace with the extent of devolution which, once the repatriation of powers from Brussels is settled, will arguably have reached a natural limit.
Attention should be paid to the machinery of intergovernmental relations, which needs to be strengthened. We also need to look at the cross-UK synergies, weakened since devolution, which need to be reinvigorated.
We need to pursue a decentralised, pan-UK strategy for rebalancing the economy, driven by city regions across the country. This means moving away from seeing everything through a four-nation prism. Many of the problems confronting Glasgow, for example, are similar to those of Manchester or Birmingham. They provide embryonic structures which can be built upon. There are two years until the next Holyrood elections. Strengthening our union must be an urgent priority whatever our post-Brexit future.
My Lords, in my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House in July 2010 I expressed a hope that a new generation of politicians and leaders in the House of Commons, many of whom had been elected after 1999, might provide a fresh opportunity for reinvigorating the relationship between Westminster, Whitehall and the devolved Governments and Parliaments of the United Kingdom. At that time I said that I wanted to use my time in your Lordships’ House to celebrate and contribute to debates on the future of that multinational, multicultural union. For that reason if no other—even if I have been disappointed since by the performance of successive Governments, who have let us down in that fresh hope—I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this welcome debate today and on the work that he has done since entering your Lordships’ House in bringing a fresh and positive approach in looking ahead to the future of the United Kingdom. The balanced tone of his introduction was extremely welcome.
I do not want to concentrate in this debate on the old debates from 2014, 2016 and since about Brexit and the nations of the United Kingdom. I hope I can use the title of the debate loosely in order to say something about the future. In relation to Brexit I wish to make two points.
First, the lack of transparency and openness on both sides in the discussions between the UK Government and the devolved Governments on the way in which Brexit affects the devolution settlement is something I warned about in your Lordships’ House, and it has contributed to the situation we are in today with such a stalemate in the other place. Secondly, I think there is a real difficulty in many of the arguments that have taken place over the past two months in relation to the so-called Northern Ireland backstop. There is diversity in legislation throughout the United Kingdom, not just between Scotland and the rest of the UK or just between Wales and the rest of the UK, but consistently between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. To say that that diversity could not be part of the long-term deal that results from the other agonies of Brexit is wrong. The idea that there is some uniformity of legislative and constitutional approach across the UK is simply not true. It never has been, but it is certainly not true in the period since 1999.
The piecemeal approach to constitutional change since 1999 has done great damage to belief in politics and government and the future of the union in the UK. While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, that not everything that has happened since devolution has been successful, it has also not been a disaster, which is what was predicted. There is incredible positivity around some of the diversity of legislation, policy initiatives and leadership across the country, but we face a new challenge following the referendum of 2016. So far the Government have not met that challenge.
There is an opportunity here. Perhaps the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the first of those devolved Parliaments gives us another opportunity to do this. There is an opportunity to look again post-Brexit at the way in which the UK state relates to the different constituent parts of the UK and at how in practice we exercise government between Whitehall, Westminster, the devolved Parliaments and the devolved Governments. There is a need for much more accountability and transparency in whatever relationship occurs. I have never been a supporter of the joint ministerial committees. I did my best to abolish them when I was First Minister. I think they are the wrong mechanism. We need a much better and stronger relationship than committees that meet on an occasional basis and are just talking shops. We also need the UK Government to restructure themselves. The outdated posts of Secretaries of State should have gone a long time ago, and they need to go now with a new relationship inside Whitehall between Whitehall and the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, said, the national institutions of the UK need to reform and change too. Twenty years on, there has been virtually no real change in the way in which the national institutions of the UK relate to the devolved Governments and Parliaments and take account of the diversity of identity. If the Government seize the opportunity to take that approach post-Brexit, perhaps we will see the positive approach of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, reflected in our future constitutional arrangements.
My Lords, I shall focus on the English question and emphasise that England’s place within the union is also in flux and confusion. One Brexit-supporting placard outside Parliament on Tuesday read, “Save England’s Constitution” —but you cannot save something that does not exist.
After the confused debate on an English Parliament and English votes for English laws, it remains doubtful that England as such is an appropriate framework for devolution in a looser UK. In a blog for the Constitution Unit in December 2018, Sir John Curtice stated that opinion polls show,
“little evidence that there is a growing sense of English identity south of the border”.
The EU referendum highlighted the political and social divisions within England, and we all know that regional equalities between English regions are the widest in any European country. Flows of EU funds to universities, companies and other bodies in the poorer regions partly help to redress this imbalance, but there is no guarantee that they will continue after Brexit.
Unlike the Barnett formula, there is no political framework for fiscal redistribution within England. The bias in infrastructure spending towards the south has become a highly visible issue across the north of England in recent years. Disillusion with the northern powerhouse—now an empty slogan—is widespread.
The Government’s approach to devolution within England is top-down, based on city regions and elected mayors. For the north of England, they are becoming steadily more confused. Last weekend, the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse proposed the establishment of a “Department for the North”, with its own Secretary of State to sit alongside those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—a major administrative change, if not a constitutional one. Can the Minister tell us whether this reflects the Government’s current position and when they will provide more detail on this interesting idea? Meanwhile, devolution for Yorkshire is stalled, with the same Minister insisting that Yorkshire has to have four city regions, while the overwhelming majority of Yorkshire local authorities, across all parties, support a “One Yorkshire” approach. Can the Minister tell us when we may expect a coherent government response to this proposal?
The Prime Minister repeatedly claims that the Conservatives are “the party of union”. It is much more the party of England, and predominantly of southern England at that. Senior Conservative Ministers overwhelmingly represent Home Counties constituencies. One of the major flaws in our first past the post voting system is that it exaggerates the regional differences between our major parties, with Labour representing the north and the industrial Midlands of England, together with Scotland and Wales, and the Conservatives the comfortable and wealthy south.
Other speakers will, rightly, point out how far devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has altered old assumptions about the British constitution. Reductions in the powers of English local authorities in recent decades and cuts in central support for their funding, which are still continuing, have left England the most centralised state in the democratic world. The shrinkage of local democratic government has contributed to popular disillusionment with politics as such, and the psychological distance from England’s west and north to London has fuelled discontent further. Of course, it is not easy to agree on a map for devolution to English regions across the Midlands and the south—but, with London as a city now an outpost of devolution in an otherwise centralised England, we have to address the issue.
Devolution within England, as well as to our other three nations, should also feed into constitutional reform at Westminster. I have been one of a long succession of Ministers who have tried to promote reform of the Lords, and I still bear the scars of that experience. A stronger second Chamber, more effectively checking executive power, would appropriately be constituted on the basis of regional representation, whether directly or indirectly elected, as the coalition Government proposed. However, both Conservative and Labour Front Benches continue to oppose a stronger second Chamber for fear that it would limit the power of a Government—executive sovereignty, of course—with a majority in the Commons to push through their legislation unamended.
Brexit will shake the union of the United Kingdom, but it will also worsen the growing divide between the richest and poorest regions of England. That divide, and the disillusion it has bred, must be addressed through constitutional change, as well as through economic redistribution.
My Lords, future generations of historians mulling over and analysing the dysfunction and muddle of the Brexit negotiations will, I suspect, have particular difficulty understanding and explaining how the charge was led by a party that still calls itself the Conservative and Unionist Party and by the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, the hardest and purest of Brexit supporters, despite the risk, I would say with some confidence, of actual damage to the United Kingdom’s own union and very possibly its unity. No amount of prime ministerial labelling of the union, metronomically, as “precious” will conceal that reality. So all credit to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for shedding some light on this rather neglected aspect of Brexit before it is too late to do anything about it except bemoan it.
At the time, were we warned about these risks that would be incurred, especially in Northern Ireland, if the UK voted to leave? Of course we were. A few days before the vote, the two Prime Ministers who did most to build the Good Friday agreement, John Major and Tony Blair, jointly gave a stark warning. Since then, precursors of the damage to come—discord over the role of the devolved Administrations in the Brexit process, failure to constitute an Administration in Belfast and the turmoil over the Irish backstop—have multiplied.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, as others have said, there were clear majorities in favour of remaining in the EU. The democratic legitimacy of those votes is indisputable, but you do not often hear that recognised by supporters of Brexit—and you never hear it recognised by the DUP. Overriding that legitimacy with the leave votes in England and Wales is precisely the sort of majoritarian supremacy that fuels the cause of Scottish independence and of the union of the two parts of Ireland. Will that be different if Brexit goes ahead on the basis of leaving with the Prime Minister’s deal, or without a deal at all? I doubt that. The contrary is far more likely—and I would include Wales, even though its voters opted to leave.
The Government’s own studies indicate a considerable and continuing loss of economic growth as a result of Brexit, and the less prosperous parts of the country, among which Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland undoubtedly rank, are likely to suffer disproportionately. The much-trumpeted prize for the UK of having its own trade policy is likely to result in concessions to trade partners such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina that will damage sheep and beef farmers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Even fishermen, among the strongest supporters of Brexit, are likely to be disappointed as the cruel deception of the Government’s claim that access to markets and access to waters are totally different things is shipwrecked on the rocks of the EU’s interests in the post-Brexit negotiations.
Then there will be the discord that is likely to reign over the exercise of the UK’s miserably diminished influence on the shaping of EU policies post Brexit. Are there not likely to be differences between Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast and Westminster and Whitehall over trying to influence trade and regulatory measures in Brussels? Will Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales not fight their corners in Brussels, thus further weakening the influence of the UK? Of course they will—and each setback in the unequal relationship between the UK and the EU will foster the sense of separation.
If even a part of these admittedly gloomy predictions is borne out, our union is in for a rough ride in a post-Brexit world. Would it not be more sensible and honest to recognise now that continued membership of the EU is far more likely to consolidate the unity of the UK than its leaving the EU, and then to give all four nations that make up the United Kingdom a say on whether to accept the deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated or whether to remain in the EU? Of course, that could result in an outcome similar to that in 2016, in which case it would have to be accepted, but we would at least have demonstrated that we had paid some attention to the attitudes and opinions of all parts of the union and that we regarded the stability of the union, which today’s debate has so usefully brought to the fore, as something that we not only paid lip service to but really meant.
My Lords, I very much welcome the debate in the House this afternoon. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who spoke before me, that this was a United Kingdom vote, not a regional vote. I could point to parts of this United Kingdom that also voted to stay within Europe. Do we treat them differently? I do not think so. The vote, as far as we are concerned, was right across the United Kingdom.
A week is a long time in politics and the uncertainties over Brexit will certainly intensify over the next number of weeks, with our precious union very much at the heart of the storm. The issue of the union has been central to much of the criticism levelled against our Prime Minister. It was specifically cited by many of those Cabinet Ministers who resigned their ministerial posts several weeks ago. They realised that the integrity of the United Kingdom should not be undermined simply to comply with the EU’s desire to protect its own single market. Of course, in Northern Ireland, the focus has been on the deal agreed with the EU by the Prime Minister and the so-called backstop, a deal which puts the union, which she professes to cherish, at such grave risk.
These are critical times for our precious union, and we must all act in the national interest. I agree with noble Lords: our union is evolving, and has evolved over the last 100 years. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have different devolution models, but that should not stop us protecting this union. In Scotland, Scottish nationalists are pushing for another referendum on independence. In Northern Ireland, we know that people use Brexit to frustrate the union. Unfortunately, this Government, and especially the Prime Minister, have allowed the border to be used by some people in Northern Ireland as a political stick to beat her with in negotiating a deal with Europe. That is the tragedy of this whole thing. I have to say to the House, we have been let down by a British Prime Minister who gave us so many promises on the backstop and the border, and then agreed to a deal that certainly creates a major problem for ourselves as unionists in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister talked about her beloved union. In fact, at her party conference she talked about her “precious union”. If the Prime Minister really believes in what she says—I believe she does—the integrity of the United Kingdom should be the most important issue for her in the future and in future negotiations with the European Union. We continually said to the Prime Minister that the road she was travelling would leave many issues for the unionist community in Northern Ireland in particular, but also the whole community. I do not think we should allow anybody—Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland—to find a way of damaging this beloved union.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hay, who correctly reminded us that the question on the ballot paper in 2016 was of course whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave, not constituent parts of it. I would like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for not only bringing this important issue before your Lordships’ House but, above all, the constitutional expertise he invests in trying to find and take forward a sustainable and workable solution to our imperfect and—as I think we all acknowledge—asymmetric union.
As I said in my own debate on this topic a year ago, above all, and like many in this House, I increasingly find that my unionism drives and underpins my political opinions. Unsurprisingly, in 2014 I voted no, and Scotland remained part of the United Kingdom. My decision in 2016 to vote to remain in the European Union was, like that of many in Scotland and Northern Ireland, more than influenced by my fears for the impact on the union of a leave vote.
My concerns failed to understand that, even for those Scots who voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014 and to remain in the European Union in 2016, remaining part of the United Kingdom and avoiding a further divisive independence referendum was far more important. In underestimating that feeling I was not alone. Many in the unionist commentariat in Scotland saw the end of the union coming with a UK leave vote in 2016. It is little wonder, therefore, that Scotland’s First Minister saw her opportunity on 23 June 2016 to once again start the process of an independence referendum, which she continued by asking for a Section 30 order in February 2017. The Scottish people gave their judgment on that in the general election of 2017 and the Scottish National Party lost half a million votes and 21 Members of Parliament.
I understand the motives of those who wish to see a “big bang” moment to protect our union. However, I am not quite as convinced as others in your Lordships’ House of the need for a constitutional convention or, indeed, a new Act of union. In the excellent debate in this House in December it was correctly identified that further constitutional change could not be top down—something I wholeheartedly agree with. I am not convinced that there is the public consent necessary for a further constitutional convention, or for the referendum that would need to follow a new Act of union to guarantee that consent. I fear that, certainly in Scotland, such a referendum on a new Act of union would not be a calm, dispassionate discussion on the pooling of resources in the UK but rather, once again a divisive and passionate independence referendum filled with fake news.
However, I am not complacent about our constitutional settlement. The Clause 11 debate during the passage of the withdrawal Bill demonstrated that our inter- governmental relations are not perfect, as has the detail of Brexit. Last year, I could speak optimistically of the devolved Administrations’ understanding of the importance of the single United Kingdom market and of the desirability of legislative consent Motions in the Scottish and Welsh Administrations. I am afraid that our intergovernmental relationships were not strong enough to broker that reasonably. That underlines the importance of ensuring that future intergovernmental relations become an arena not purely for debate but for agreement, where the principals do not leave the room and immediately take to platforms for press statements. That might require a statutory basis.
In my opinion, the union—certainly in Scotland—has survived the Brexit stress test so far, but until we properly institute an improved, robust and regular opportunity for proper intergovernmental engagement, I fear that more stresses lie ahead.
My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for initiating the debate. The principal organ for maintaining the stability of the union must be the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The role of the devolved Administrations, though important, is complementary. I will give an immediate example—two in fact—where the United Kingdom Government have not strained to fulfil this important role.
The original proposals of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill certainly did not do so. In its clawing-back proposals—Clause 11 in particular—it ignored what the devolved Administrations had been enjoying for years. As far as Wales was concerned, through the good sense of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Mr Mark Drakeford, agreement was reached. In Scotland, agreement was not reached. There has been litigation, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, but the bottom line is the statement of the Scottish Constitutional Relations Secretary that he could not conceive of a situation where legislative consent would be given to any matter from the United Kingdom Parliament on agriculture, trade and fisheries. Perhaps the Minister could tell me what the state of play is now as far as Scotland is concerned on that aspect.
The Agriculture Bill now going through the Commons suffers from the same difficulty and the Delegated Powers Committee of this House has hammered its proposals because, again, they bypass Parliament and the devolved Administrations. The proposals give powers back to United Kingdom Crown Ministers and ignore what has been developed. We in this House will therefore have to return to this in due course. These are recent examples of what the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, referred to as “imperial condescension”. Nothing seems to have been learned and we are back to square one on this issue.
The next issue I want to raise is whether another independence referendum in Scotland would destabilise the union. I venture to think, perhaps surprisingly, that it might not. I regret that there is no SNP representation in this House. Sinn Féin has a long-standing objection to representation in the Commons; in my role as Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, I discovered that fairly rapidly. Nationalist parties from the time of the Irish Members have had an influence in the Commons well above their numbers. From 1885 to 1906, they dominated Parliament, and the Liberal Government of the day had to rely on them because they had no majority until 1906. The Callaghan Government, in which I played a part, lost their vote of confidence in 1979 by one vote because although the SNP had been warned that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, it pulled the plug on the Government. As a result, it lost nine of its 11 Members.
I am relaxed about whether the SNP gets its second referendum—another once-in-a-lifetime one, it has been called. As an outsider but an interested Celt, I do not think it would undermine the United Kingdom’s situation and perhaps the Scots might enhance our stability by being released from their grouse of democratic deprivation. I would not forecast the result but I would warn the SNP about any economy based on how a sheik in the Middle East turns the tap on oil, given the volatility of its price. Perhaps it should look at the biblical advice of not building its house either on sand or on the product of sand.
I close by remarking that the future must be resolved on a much more basic principle of having a convention, which we discussed in the last debate, to ensure that piecemeal reform is not continued. Rather, we should look comprehensively at the future while understanding the development of the existing and new powers. If we are to have a stable future, a convention is required.
My Lords, across the UK, Scotland and London voted most strongly for remain, which is somewhat ironic given the nationalists’ antipathy towards London and London-based government. Northern Ireland voted clearly for remain, only to find its hard-line Brexit party tweaking the tail of a Brexit-traumatised Conservative Government. A lot has been said, I think rightly, about Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s cavalier disregard for those who voted remain. “You lost. Get over it”, they say, but they have been unable to come up with anything that can unite a majority. When the DUP is challenged for representing a minority in Northern Ireland, it asserts that remain voters are predominantly nationalists and can therefore apparently be discounted—second-class votes.
Membership of the EU resides with the United Kingdom and it is not possible for parts of the UK to be in and parts to be out. I suggest that raises the question as to whether we should ever have sought a simple binary majority, or one that was qualified by the views of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom as well.
During a recent visit to Derry, I was able to see and hear how differences already affect what is located on which side of the border and how people and services operate. Moderate unionists who voted remain are beginning to consider whether the complexities of Brexit might make the prospect of a united Ireland unexpectedly attractive, especially now they see a much more liberal Republic and a frozen conservative Province in the north. The polarisation of Northern Ireland politics has left the Province without a democratic voice. Disillusioned young people at an integrated school that I visited in Derry told me that they thought that violence would return to the Province. I was quite shocked that they were unanimous in their view.
For a long time—the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, referred to this—many people thought that nationalism could be contained within the European Union or at least under its umbrella. That is kind of logical given that the raison d’être of the European Union was to find mechanisms to avoid conflicts getting out of control and leading to war—which has been one of its great achievements.
For many years, the SNP campaigned under the slogan, “Independence in Europe”, so leaving the EU is a problem for it. First, a significant proportion of its voters chose Brexit. Secondly, leaving the UK without the comfort of the EU umbrella could leave Scotland in a cold place, with no prospect of a quick re-entry into the EU. Campaigners in favour of remain have sometimes prayed in aid divergence with Scotland as a threat to the union in simplistic terms. The people of Scotland voted remain by a large margin. Theresa May’s dead deal, something similar or no deal would in many ways be a betrayal of Scotland, or at least an insensitive disregard for the concerns and preferences of its people. Of course, that is seized on by the SNP to make the case for a second independence referendum. “Let’s vote for independence and rejoin the EU”, it says, except it is not that simple. First, the UK is overwhelmingly Scotland’s biggest market. Secondly, however sympathetic the EU may be to Scotland’s warmth towards that Union—in contrast with the SNP’s hostility to this union—Scotland would have to take years and deep economic pain before it could accede to membership, during which time it would be outside both unions.
Surely it is time, Brexit or not, to sort out the mess that the United Kingdom has become and to create a constitution worthy of its name, which guarantees the human rights of everyone in the United Kingdom and accommodates the views and wishes of the devolved Administrations and the regions of England in a legal framework. The Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, is a good start. I understand why he asserts that nothing could challenge the sovereignty of this United Kingdom Parliament, but I think that he would recognise that, if it were a matter of a transition to a federal Government, we would eventually need a constitution to which even this House and the other House would have to be subordinated. That is how most modern democracies work. Ours is not working; it is time that we modernised it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, who spoke with his customary clarity. I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this important debate.
I shall make just two points. The first concerns arrangements for intergovernmental relations in our union. Our intergovernmental arrangements are completely out of date. The governing document is a 60-page memorandum of understanding dated October 2013. Our Constitution Committee produced a report, Inter-governmental Relations in the United Kingdom, in March 2015 and made many recommendations. It produced a second report, The Union and Devolution, in May 2016 and made further recommendations. The Government’s response to the first report turned up only in January 2017. In the meantime, nothing has happened to the memorandum of understanding, yet since it was published in October 2013, we have had the Scottish referendum, the Scotland Act 2016, the Wales Act 2017 and now Brexit. The landscape has changed and is changing further. Much more power over many more areas resides with devolved structures, yet the Government have not followed up and have ignored the compelling reports of the Constitution Committee. This failure to engage in a calculated reconstruction of how intergovernmental relations work in the union is a very risky omission and action is needed. Can the Minister tell us what is happening and what the timetable is for having new arrangements?
My second point concerns inter-parliamentary arrangements in our union. The EU Select Committee’s July 2017 report Brexit: Devolution concluded that there was a need for more inter-parliamentary dialogue and co-operation. For Brexit, we recommended regular joint meetings between the relevant committees with responsibility for Brexit-related issues in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, and of course at Westminster. We recommended that these take place for the duration of the Brexit negotiations. We went on to say, at paragraph 298:
“In the longer term, we also see a need for a strengthened forum for interparliamentary dialogue within the post-Brexit United Kingdom”.
The Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit was established as a direct result of these recommendations. The forum brings together the chairs of the committees scrutinising Brexit-related issues in Westminster and the devolved Administrations. In the House of Lords, this includes the EU Select Committee, the Constitution Committee, the Delegated Powers Committee, and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Representatives of the Northern Ireland Assembly of course cannot attend but officials come as observers. The forum has met five times so far and is meeting for a sixth today, here in the House of Lords as we speak. Those at the forum, whatever their views on the union or on Brexit, come together to discuss the Brexit process and the implications for the devolution settlement that flow from it. Participants have been clear that the combination of interesting agendas and the ability to meet and discuss matters with opposite numbers has been most valuable. Today it will discuss the Brexit developments of the past few days and will meet the Minister for the Constitution, Chloe Smith, to discuss intergovernmental relations.
In closing I ask the Minister my second question: does he regard this as a heathy development? Does he think it is a possible template for a necessary formal inter-parliamentary strand of the UK’s devolved structure?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for the way he introduced this debate and I dedicate my contribution to the memory of Steffan Lewis AM, who died last Friday at the age of 34. In two brief years in the National Assembly, Steffan had already made a huge impact, not least with the White Paper, Securing Wales’ Future. That document, addressing issues which face Wales in the context of Brexit, gained cross-party support in the Assembly. Steffan Lewis saw quite clearly that Brexit, particularly in its most extreme manifestation, could have significant negative implications for the future relationships in these islands, partly because of the narrow, inward-looking nationalism that underpins much of the Brexit approach. This contrasts with the civic nationalism which we have carefully nurtured in Wales.
The Welsh nation is not a racial construct. We are a mongrel people, defined not by blood and race but by community, culture and values. Those values underpin an outward-looking set of beliefs which recognises everyone in Wales, whatever their language, colour or creed, as full and equal citizens of our country. Our values as a nation have run through our politics. It is no coincidence that Lloyd George led the fight to establish social security and Aneurin Bevan the NHS. Wales is a nation whose roots are deep in our European heritage. In terms of language, culture, religion and traditions, our identity is European and it is an identity we have no intention of abandoning. It is to safeguard our values, communities and culture that we have aspired to greater political self-determination—to greater independence, if you like. But independence is a relative concept and whereas every nation has a right to independence, it also has a responsibility towards its neighbours and the wider world.
Over the past two generations, Wales has secured a considerable degree of independence. In practical terms, we have our own independent education policies; likewise with roads and housing. We make our own laws and determine our own priorities but we also recognise that there are matters, such as environmental issues, which we cannot control alone but must be governed in larger units, be that on a world, a European or indeed a British level.
In determining this, the European concept of subsidiarity should always come into play: matters should be decided as close as possible to the communities on which those decisions impact. Today’s debate is timely, but one of the real dangers is that we see our relationships as a dipole between Brussels and London, rather than as a multilayered, decentralist structure driven by subsidiarity. In that way, we could easily find ourselves centralising on to a British level decisions that have been systematically decentralised over the past two decades within a European framework.
That is why there was so much grief in Cardiff and Edinburgh when we saw—in terms of agricultural policy, industrial development incentives and procurement rules—what was felt to be a power grab by London. This awoke all the old forebodings and generated unnecessary fear. The real danger is that we put into reverse all the gains we have made—in autonomy, identity, assuming responsibility and developing multilateral cultural links—and that we get sucked back into the vortex of a unified, centralised British state.
To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That, more than any other single factor, is what will drive the movement towards greater independence for Wales and Scotland, if that is what happens. It may well be that new structures can be developed in terms of a federal or confederal state which can appropriately serve nations—and indeed regions—with diverse identities, different challenges and our own aspirations. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, is relevant in that regard.
Over the past 12 months, during which Steffan Lewis knew of his bowel cancer, he continued his work with bravery and dedication. He refused to let his illness define his life. Only last month, he proposed Plaid Cymru’s amendment to the Labour Government’s Motion on the withdrawal agreement, spelling out why it should be rejected. To the credit of Labour Members, they recognised Steffan’s case and accepted his amendment.
In the wake of Tuesday’s vote, MPs across party lines may try to secure a sensible compromise, such as a model based on the UK retaining its customs union and single market relationship with the EU, and accepting the free movement of people, goods and money between the countries of Britain and the 27 EU member states as a way forward. If that is so, it will provide a framework within which Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—and indeed England—can develop an evolving relationship, facilitating the maximum degree of self-government to which their peoples aspire, while simultaneously enabling families, businesses and civic society to blossom without the artificial barriers which a blinkered 19th century approach to independence implies.
In conclusion, it is hugely ironic that it is in this context that a key to Britain’s future relationship with Europe may be found. It is an even greater sadness that Steff has not lived to see the relevance of his analysis become centre stage as we contemplate the future relationships of the nations of these islands.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this debate. I also thank him and his colleagues in the Constitution Reform Group, including the Marquess of Salisbury, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others. They have at least been working on a growing problem which, by and large, has not been strategically addressed.
As we have sat in this House over the last few years, a number of noble Lords on the Front Bench have brought forward one constitutional Bill after another. We had several Welsh Bills and Scottish Bills as well as ones pertaining to Northern Ireland. At the other end of the Corridor we had English votes for English laws; we had referenda, which sometimes seemed to pop up without any real definition of when they should be introduced; and we had had a variety of proposals to reform your Lordships’ House. The underlying common denominator of all this is that there is no overarching plan. It is haphazard, and driven by events and pressures. There is no strategy involved in any of it. At least the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and his colleagues have been attempting to do something about that—not that I accept everything they say; I do not. At the same time, they are at least sitting down and making an effort. Other people, including on the committees of this House and in Parliament, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, pointed out, have also made contributions.
However, the fact is that we have no clear idea of how things are to be done. For instance, there is no plan for how the devolved regions should account for the money that is provided to them by central government for their actions. There is no accountability. They can decide to contribute views or not. I said in another debate that it was like a giant ATM machine: devolved Ministers can draw out money, but they do not have to make any contributions on what they have done with it. I would like the Minister in his reply to address that.
Then we have the Sewel convention and other things that have developed. In addition, of course, we have the catastrophe back at home, with no devolved Government, no direct rule Ministers—nothing. It is all completely absent. If the backstop proposals were to be implemented, we would be in even worse shape, because we would have no representation in Europe as well. Talk about a democratic beheading—we have a clear example of it there.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, referenced the Joint Ministerial Committee. I have sat on that body, and I have to say that Whitehall Ministers turn up as if it was a chore. In other words, there is no appetite for it whatever. They turned up because they had to, and they normally sent not their number one but their number two or number three along to represent them. They had no interest in it—it was a nuisance—and that says it all. That has to be fixed, and it will not be fixed unless there is an overall plan.
The other thing that concerns me is referenda. We have had a number of them over the years. The two big ones on Europe were brought into being because of internal disputes within the two major parties. We had a referendum on AV, and referenda in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Again, it is all haphazard—there is no plan. A number of people are saying that we need another referendum to get out of our present difficulties. Take care; it is a very divisive thing. You would not know what the result of another referendum might be, and it could set up the pieces for a further Scottish referendum. I do not see how you could make a coherent argument against a second Scottish referendum if you have one on Europe again. There will also be the question about what you have on the ballot paper; it could be divisive and very unrealistic. You could have a border poll and a Scottish referendum both driven by a further referendum on our EU membership—so I hope that Members will consider that carefully.
There must be a serious discussion on the constitutional future of this country and its structures, not a continuation of the haphazard Bills that come before us, one after the other.
My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Lisvane secured this debate; I referred to the Act of Union Bill and its parent, the Constitutional Reform Group, in my speech in your Lordships’ House on 13 December. But what is the case for the union now, which is under threat from Brexit in both Scotland and Northern Ireland?
The former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown set out a compelling vision in rejecting Scottish independence, both in a speech on 10 March 2014 and in his book My Scotland, Our Britain. He rightly insisted that the issue is not simply about patriotism: both pro and anti-independence Scots could claim to be equally patriotic. Instead, he argued, the incontrovertible advantage of modern Britain is its 20th-century innovation: the pooling and sharing of risks and resources across the whole of the United Kingdom to ensure common welfare and decent standards of life for all citizens, regardless of where you live, through common, UK-wide old-age pensions, common UK social insurance—sick pay, health insurance and unemployment insurance—common UK child and family benefits, a common UK minimum wage, and a UK system of equalising resources, so that everyone has the same political, social and economic rights, and not simply equal civil and political rights.
With around 40% of UK GDP concentrated in London and the south-east of England, separatists have no answer to the great benefit of the United Kingdom: redistributing resources from its better to its less well-off parts and, through a UK-wide minimum wage and tax credits, guaranteeing a minimum family income and stopping regions and nations undercutting each other, thus preventing a damaging race to the bottom between the nations and regions within the UK.
Although England remains highly centralised and the English question has not been properly addressed, as it should be, the 1973 Kilbrandon royal commission made a convincing case against a separate English parliament which has never been rebutted. Such a federation of four units would be,
“so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England”,
“Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together representing less than one fifth of the population”.
Instead, I believe in a modern federal United Kingdom, which is set out in the noble Lord’s Act of Union Bill. English interests could be better protected through regional devolution outside London—again, I suggested how that might be done in my speech on 13 December.
We should be wary of devolution in the form of “neoliberal outsourcing”, in line with the right’s ideological objective to shrink the Whitehall state, offloading as much responsibility as possible to individual citizens to fend for themselves, outsourcing to private providers and “subcontracting” tax and spending to devolved legislatures and cities. In that respect at least, the outcomes if not the ideologies of nationalism and neoliberalism can converge because, under both, the redistributive power of the United Kingdom state is either severed or severely stunted.
The great majority of individuals need the state on their side but not on their backs. They need active government which intervenes to curb market excess and market power. They need a social context to ownership. They need the assistance of strong communities. They need the solidarity which comes from acting collectively to exercise influence over the decisions which shape their lives and to experience the fulfilment of active citizenship. They need power to be decentralised and fairly distributed—which is precisely what the Act of Union Bill provides for. And much needed it will be in the current Brexit mess, not least to help hold our country together.
My Lords, we are indebted to my noble friend Lord Lisvane for a timely broadening of the debate. Nevertheless, I shall talk mainly about Northern Ireland because it seems to me the most urgent. We are in great danger of flogging dead horses at present, because we are not too sure which horses are still alive—so be it.
The backstop is of course the fundamental feature of the debate on the Northern Irish situation at present, but in the background there is the Belfast agreement and the commitment of all parties to the principle of consent in any constitutional change. This is a treaty obligation that both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have accepted, and it has been fundamental to the peace process, which the EU has supported in many ways across, now, more than 20 years. If the backstop were activated, that would change the constitutional position by, in effect, excluding Northern Ireland—it is hoped, only temporarily—from the UK.
In very recent exchanges with the United Kingdom Government, the EU has indicated an aspiration to ensure that this situation does not arise and that, if it does, to work towards reaching an agreement on trade and, thereby, on the Irish border. That is admirable and realistic, but the phrasing of the commitment is still asymmetric. In their letter of 14 January—this Monday—to the Prime Minister, available on the Government’s website, Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker reaffirm their aspiration to avoid the backstop. So far, so good. They write:
“The Commission can also confirm the European Union’s determination to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that would”—
note the hypotheticals—
“ensure the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”.
That is baffling. If their determination is shared by Her Majesty’s Government and the Republic of Ireland, why can the commitment not be made by all parties at this stage?
I realise that it has been affirmed time and again that future arrangements can be agreed only once the withdrawal agreement has been completed. But does this make any sense? Yes, to be sure that future arrangements can be implemented only at an appropriate time. But putting them beyond discussion and agreement and allowing that to undermine the negotiation of a withdrawal agreement reminds one of publicly insisting on red lines before negotiating. Surely there is too much at stake to allow this rigidity to derail agreement.
I have family both north and south of the Irish border. My family, including those who have served in this House and the other place, have long been liberal unionists so I am not tempted to support the DUP, least of all some aspects of its policies. I know in my bones what the loss of peace and good order would mean. If change in the Northern Ireland constitutional status happened by consent, in accordance with the Belfast agreement, so be it. I would support that, but I am at a loss to understand why the EU negotiators wish to risk the peace agreement they have supported for many years by allowing for the possibility of profound constitutional change that is not consented to as the Belfast agreement requires. Can the Minister shed any light on that by explaining why the Government have not managed to convey to the EU negotiators that this is effectively unconsented constitutional change?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for securing this timely debate. In the past week, the business of the House and the other place has been taken up almost entirely by considering fairly fundamental aspects of the governance of this country. Some may think that this has been fine and has not caused great disruption, but considering that it has meant reviewing all possible methods of bringing about constitutional change, it was bound to give new life to all the arguments about further reforms in our constitutional settlement.
As emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that is particularly true for Scotland. This subject has a long history, of course, in which I always take an interest even if for no other reason than so many of my direct ancestors have been personally involved. Depending on your view, my family can be either credited or blamed for much that has happened in Scotland throughout her history. We were one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, resisting the pretensions of Edward I. A little later, a member of my family known as the 1st Marquis was one of the first signatories of the Scottish Covenant in 1638, objecting to the impositions and taxes of Charles I. Then, in 1707, as President of the Council in the Scottish Parliament, we oversaw the passing of the Act of Union and the financial and economic benefit that stemmed from that. Even more recently, I could consider my grandfather, who got into a spot of bother in 1932 for suggesting that Scotland should benefit from an element of devolution similar to what we have today.
So I have followed in great detail all the devolution legislation that has come through this House. Once the original Scottish devolution Act had been passed, those who put it together adopted as their mantra that devolution is not an Act of Parliament but a process. From day one, the practical rules have been subject to tweaks, adjustments and memoranda of understanding. No doubt this has been a great boon to the civil servants involved and those in the Scottish Government for their daily workings, but it has probably worked quite well even for the Scottish Parliament. However, what I feel has been missing is any chance for the UK legislature to consider whether these things suited the settlement that Scotland had within the UK and the interests of the UK Parliament at the time they were introduced. We have of course considered them when we have periodically reconsidered the Scotland Act, but that has been very much later.
There are a number of issues over which there is current contention. I wonder if there is any way that my noble friend the Minister can give us an indication of the grounds on which the Government are pursuing the case in the Supreme Court. This seems to be a question of the competence of the Scotland Act 1998 as regards the devolution of powers over agriculture and fisheries that were, and still are, the responsibility of the European Union. Section 29(2)(a) of the Act states:
“A provision is outside that competence”—
of the Scottish Parliament if—
“it would form part of the law of a country or territory other than Scotland, or confer … functions exercisable otherwise than in or as regards Scotland”,
which at the present moment still applies to both fisheries and agriculture. For the outcome, we will have to wait for the judgment of the court, but the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has put his finger on a vital component which is needed: we need respect from both sides and it applies in both ways.
My Lords, I should like to add my voice to those of others to congratulate and thank the noble lord, Lord Lisvane, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this Motion. The subject is an important one. In all the discussions and debates about Brexit, we have perhaps not sufficiently addressed the consequences of Brexit for the integrity of the United Kingdom.
The problem of retaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic when that becomes the only land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union has of course received a great deal of attention. The Prime Minister has been resolute in the pursuit of arrangements to ensure that the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom should be preserved and ensured. But the arrangements are complex and to some extent artificial, as well as controversial, and of course they are part of an agreement which has now been overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons.
I follow the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, in reminding the House that Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the country in that the Good Friday agreement, like the Anglo-Irish agreement of November 1985, in which I played a part, guarantees that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom unless and until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland want it and decide to vote for it. Whether that time will ever come, none of us can say, but it seems that it is likely to come sooner than it otherwise might when the United Kingdom is going to leave or has left the European Union.
Then it has to be remembered that in Scotland there was a majority for remaining in the European Union in the referendum of June 2016. That was not just an echo of the “auld alliance” between Scotland and France. It could become a significant factor in any future referendum on Scottish independence, although like other speakers I should be a little surprised if that took the number of supporters for independence over the threshold of 50%. Scotland would find it a cold place to be outside the UK and the European Union.
I am not at all sure that I wish to enshrine these matters in a written constitution, which is like a great statute. Such a statute would become like a large building which cannot be changed when the conditions outside it or the requirements being made of it change. We need to go rather carefully when trying to freeze or fossilise the existing constitutional arrangement because it then becomes in a sense a dead thing and unable to adapt to changes in life, changes in requirements and changes in circumstances outside. I approach that with a certain amount of scepticism.
The union that is the United Kingdom was created and developed by successive changes made over centuries. It was not set out in advance in a written constitution, but has developed in response to the needs of the day. The United Kingdom has been a source of strength and benefit to all its constituent parts, as one can see from the number of Scottish people who have made such a large contribution to our public and political life. It has achieved a strength, standing and an influence in our relations with other countries which none of the constituent countries would have had on their own. It has also remained a steady beacon of freedom and democracy and of political stability and maturity—living together, as it were—to which other countries have looked with respect and envy. We take it for granted because it has always been there for us. However, there are times, and the present is one of them, when while looking at our constitutional arrangements, we should be counting our blessings and actively seeking to protect and preserve them.
My Lords, the House is pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is replying to this debate as it holds him in very high regard. The only surprising thing is that the noble Lord finds it possible to continue being a member of a Government who, in Brexit, are systematically destroying his own life’s work. If I may say so, he gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “semi-detached”. He appears to be attached to this Government in the way that the moon is attached to the sun, but we are none the less glad that he is speaking today. That is because he harks back to the days when Conservatives were indeed conservative and observed the dictum of Edmund Burke that:
“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”;
but his underlying belief was that it should be the minimum change necessary to preserve a state which, by a long process of organic formation, works pretty well.
In Great Britain—Ireland is entirely different—that is pretty much the way we have handled constitutional reform in this country since the Napoleonic wars, which finally ended Jacobitism and the threat to the Hanoverian settlements. But Brexit has brought an end to all that because for the first time in modern history, the Conservative Party has stopped being conservative and has in fact become a revolutionary party that is seeking to undermine the entire fabric of our existing constitutional settlement, with an impact that will go well beyond Brexit. As other noble Lords have said, it will probably threaten the union with Northern Ireland and possibly in due course the union with Scotland too. It is perfectly conceivable that if Brexit proceeds, England will be a single unitary state within the lifetime of many of us present in this Chamber. Of course, that would make sense philosophically because it is the expression of an extreme form of English nationalism that we have not seen in recent history.
The question that is preoccupying Parliament at large at the moment is how we can stop that process democratically. It looks to me as though that will take the form of a referendum, in which I hope very much that the British people, having seen the kind of Brexit on offer and the threat it poses to their way of life, will actually vote to remain in the European Union.
However, the underlying social pressures and tensions that have led to Brexit are partly to do with the inadequate aspects of our constitutional arrangements and the way they deal with political and social issues. They need reform, and a good Burkean would be paying serious and particular attention at the moment—as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has done—to the big issue of the government of England. While we have had significant and beneficial reform in the government of Wales and Scotland and have brought an end to a virtual civil war within the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland—I pay huge tribute to John Major, Tony Blair and a generation of politicians in Ireland and Northern Ireland—the government of England has not undergone substantial reform of any kind since Redcliffe-Maud and the big reforms to county and local government in the early 1970s. It is not working well at all.
I will make three brief points on what I believe should happen. We need to reinforce substantially the devolution moves that have taken place in recent years. The single best reform to the government of England in the last 20 years was the creation of the mayoralty of London—a strong executive office with substantial devolution of funding and autonomous powers, accountable to an elected assembly—which has transformed the government of London. The quality of our public services in London, particularly our infrastructure and especially transport, have been changed for the better beyond all recognition because of the introduction of this very welcome measure of devolution. We need the same in all the city regions of England and in the wider regions, and it needs to be done on some kind of agreed basis. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to Yorkshire. There is at the moment a massive stand-off between the Government and local authorities and responsible leaders in Yorkshire, including the mayor of South Yorkshire, on this very issue. It needs to be resolved, city region by city region, with substantial devolution taking place.
Secondly, on finance, you cannot divorce devolution from money, in the way that you can never divorce government from money. The person who holds the budget is the person who wields the power. A good part of the reason why the settlements in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London have been so successful is the substantial devolution of funding. Ever since the settlement that replaced the poll tax with this extremely inadequate council tax, which now is pretty much inoperable as an effective property tax, there has not been an effective funding base for local government.
Thirdly, we need properly to codify this in a new federal constitution, which I think should involve a senate replacing the existing House of Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said that we suffer from imperial condescension. I do not believe that that is a complete explanation.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on such a timely debate. I have been exposed to constitutional issues for a long time as a senior civil servant, special adviser, Minister and Member of this House. I have always had reservations about our unwritten constitution, once described by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as the “good chaps” system of government. I thought we were moving away from this with the constitutional changes introduced by the new Labour Government after 1997, in which I was involved.
It is worth reminding ourselves what a Government can achieve in these areas when they put their mind to it. Devolved Administrations were introduced, although regional assemblies for England were not pursued; a Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law; freedom of information legislation reduced Whitehall’s secrets; most of the hereditary Peers were removed from this House, although our functions remained unchanged; and stronger oversight of elections was introduced. For a while it looked as though this programme would take the UK forward on a reasonably agreed basis, but Brexit has shown otherwise. Enabling major changes to international treaties through populist referendums has exposed our representative parliamentary democracy to serious dangers. Until the last 48 hours, Parliament has proved incapable of stopping two misguided Conservative Prime Ministers seriously damaging our country through vain attempts to unify their own political party. The result was well captured by a leader article in the Economist on 22 December, which commented on how,
“a rich, peaceful and apparently stable country can absent-mindedly set fire to its constitutional arrangements without any serious plan for replacing them”.
That seems to sum up pretty well where we have managed to get to.
We have to start considering the major constitutional weaknesses exposed by the whole Brexit fiasco. We badly need to reshape the current constitutional settlement and the relationship between the centre and the nations and regions. We need one that includes much more effective curbs on the Executive. For a start we need to reconsider the size, functions and character of both Houses of Parliament and to better define their relationship both to the Executive and to the devolved Administrations and English regions—a sadly neglected area. We now have no effective Government in Northern Ireland, a restive Scottish Government with independence still on its mind and no consistency of approach to major English city regions. Reforming the functions, composition and size of this House is long overdue. We should be changing it to an indirectly elected and partially appointed senate with a strong regional and nation component.
The pressure for some kind of broad-spectrum constitutional debate seems inevitable. The more we can do to generate that, the better. This debate will need to involve all parts of the UK and to consider the relationship between government at all levels—UK, regional and nation, and local. The neglect of local government in England in particular is a disgrace. Some new forum to begin work on this agenda is badly needed, because I cannot see either of the two main political parties in their present state tackling an agenda of this kind.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this most timely of debates. He brings a depth of knowledge to your Lordships’ House and is also a fellow Celt, which adds to his appeal. I agree with the contention implicit in the Motion before us today. But Brexit was destined to pose a perceived threat to the stability of our precious union because some nationalists were bound to use it for that purpose. The Scottish National Party has set the bar predictably low. But against the expectations of many, I argue that one of the few positives of the Brexit process so far—I say this as an outer—is that it has strengthened the union.
Further, I believe that Northern Ireland’s status as a valued component part of the United Kingdom has rarely been more secure. The debate around the so-called backstop to avoid the threat of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been passionate. The issue remains unresolved, but I do not have time to dwell on its finer details.
However, I take grave issue with those who claim that Brexit poses a threat to the hard-won peace on the island of Ireland. Such statements are not only wrong but opportunistic and insulting. The backstop debate has led many parliamentarians, both in your Lordships’ House and in the other place, to speak up for Northern Ireland, defend the Belfast agreement and remind those in other parts of the United Kingdom of the right of the people of the Province to self-determination. This has been very welcome, and I am grateful.
In contrast to Scotland, there has not been a constant demand in Northern Ireland for a referendum on our future within the United Kingdom. Yet many nationalists by definition still want a united Ireland and are perfectly entitled to that opinion. But most people, from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds, are more interested in Brexit and share a desire for a devolved Government to be restored to Northern Ireland.
It is a constitutional outrage that this month marks two years since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed. In the intervening period, local people have been left without accountable Ministers taking decisions on their behalf. Our schools and hospitals, along with much else, have been left to spiral into decline. Your Lordships will accept that no Government, Labour or Conservative, would allow this to happen in any other part of the United Kingdom. So why is it allowed to happen in Northern Ireland?
We who live there deserve so much better than this. Our children are entitled to receive the best possible quality of education, delivered in properly funded schools. For two years, they have had to settle for second best, with parents and teachers often having to dip into their own pockets to pay for materials. The sick and the infirm are entitled to receive the best possible quality of healthcare, provided in properly funded hospitals. For two years, they have had to settle for second best, as waiting lists have lengthened ever further.
There is a widely held view that Her Majesty’s Government will make no further efforts to restore devolution in Northern Ireland until after the Brexit deadline on 29 March. I suspect that the Government’s dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party to keep them in office and to get Brexit through is not unrelated to that. This was clearly evidenced last night in another place, to the DUP’s obvious delight.
However, I ask the Minister directly to convey my message to his colleagues, in his characteristically polite manner. The Brexit process is a mess—I do not need to remind the Minister of that. As a result, there are growing rumours that the Government will have no option but to request an extension of Article 50 from the European Union. I believe this scenario will become more apparent in the coming days, when Members of Parliament gather to debate and vote on new ways forward, almost certainly including fresh negotiations in Brussels, which will require yet more time. Should an extension of Article 50 be deemed necessary, I implore Ministers not to use this as an excuse to further delay attempts to restore a properly accountable Northern Ireland Executive.
Initial suggestions were that the Article 50 extension would be until 1 July. This morning, I read several reports that it could now be until the end of this year or even beyond. The people of Northern Ireland cannot and should not be expected to wait any longer for a restoration of devolved government to return to the political agenda. Otherwise, the warm words of Ministers, in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere, about how much they supposedly value Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, will, I fear, blow cold.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and I thank him for his wise words. Reflecting on these matters, as one often does, after 27 years in the House of Commons and seven years in the wilderness—as they call it nowadays—and then coming into your Lordships’ House in 2004, I have become increasingly depressed by the deterioration of the quality of British politics and British party politics in making decisions to help the citizens of this country. It started, sadly, with Margaret Thatcher, although at least she supported the single market in the European negotiations, even if it was partly because she thought it an important business matter—fair enough—and did not necessarily support its other aspects. More recently, I have witnessed the unbelievable deterioration of politics, with the catastrophe of the Brexit result and the Government’s handling of it.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for introducing this debate today and making such excellent and wise suggestions about future possibilities of the federal union type. I look forward to seeing his Bill flourish.
This matter is so severe now in this country because we cannot get agreement between the parties on any substantial matter—we cannot really get agreement on anything. Now, at long last, Theresa May is beginning the exercise of asking to discuss these matters with the other parties—which she should have done ages ago—because we have reached a huge impasse and have no solution. That is the background.
For many years now, there has been no agreement on anything in British politics, including party funding and changing the voting system from the crude, primitive first past the post system to a PR system, as most countries in Europe have. I live in France as well, which is an exception. There, they have the two-round system, which mitigates the tyranny of the first past the post result.
I welcome the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Young, on the Front Bench today to give us the wisdom of his answers and to make constructive suggestions for the future. The situation is very grim indeed.
If the Whips had allowed me to speak for 15 minutes today, I would have spent five minutes on what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, and five minutes on what my noble friend Lord Warner said. I thank them for their speeches. However, in the four minutes left to me, I will conclude with some comments on their observations.
We have to start now to reach agreement in this country at long last. Can Mrs May do it? I was astonished—and said so at the time; I am not being wise after the event—when, immediately after the referendum result, she said, “Brexit means Brexit”. Given her authority, psychologically, as a new Prime Minister, and one without a general election result but rather elected by her own party’s members, she could have explained that it was a complicated matter. She could have suggested going back to discuss how we handle this with all the parliamentary organs and parties, and with everybody in the country. She could have said that we needed a full and proper analysis of the Brexit result. It was, after all, an advisory referendum. Even though Cameron promised that he would insist on carrying it through, that did not apply to the subsequent Prime Minister.
Then, following the election on 8 June, the Prime Minister lost the mandate to carry on with the Brexit negotiations but said that she would carry on in a totally artificial and provocative combination with the DUP, which is, I am sad to say, one of the least popular parties in the House of Commons. That party is based on Protestant extremism and the denial of women’s rights, for God’s sake; it is amazing that Mrs May even considered linking up with it just to provide an artificial majority. In a country with a written constitution, that would surely have been declared inadmissible by the augurs of the state who decide on constitutional propriety. But we do not have that. Instead, we have party, constitutional and parliamentary anarchy.
We must break through that anarchy, and we now have the opportunity to do so, in resisting Brexit and probably having a second referendum if Parliament itself cannot decide finally. Perhaps the public would accept that, and we would then have a chance to restore the quality, value and valour of the British political system in England, the main country, and in the devolved parts. If not, this anarchy and chaos will continue, and we will continue in a downward spiral into I know not what. I hope that will not happen.
My Lords, this debate has demonstrated just how timely and important it is that the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, introduced it. We should all be grateful to him for that. The debate so far has emphasised that we are in a bit of mess with our constitution. There has been a lot of piecemeal, pragmatic activity in our recent history, but where has been the sense of strategy? What is the objective towards which we are working? Where is the road map?
I have an overriding conviction that the most challenging aspect of political life is that we live in a world that is totally interdependent. The challenge for government and political leadership is to come to terms with that and to find a way in which we enable the British people to play a constructive and full part in meeting that reality. It seems to me that anything else is escapism from fundamental reality. I also accept that, in the impersonal and technological age in which we live, in which the very thought of global interdependence is intimidating to so many people, there is a yearning for identity. What has gone wrong is that we see these two things in conflict. They are not. We should encourage a sense of identity and look for ways in which people can find their identity.
The next challenge is for leadership to explain that there is no way we can find a successful part in the world, or have a stable world, simply on the basis of identity. We have to co-operate, and the challenge now is to see how these people with different identities come together and work in the interests of humanity. That is the challenge which has been brought home by our agonising over Europe.
What is this identity? We have to be honest with ourselves. I am conscious and glad that I am a Scot and English. My mother was a Scot and my father was English. It is interesting that they came together in an international context. They always said that learning to bring their two cultures together in their personal life was part of understanding the challenge I have just described.
I come down in favour of a convention on our constitution in which we can give strategic consideration to all these matters and see how far what we have shapes up to the challenge and how we might make it better. I know that people who look at and talk about this matter have an anxiety—it has come out in the debate—first, about the English dimension and the fact that the English, cussedly, do not seem to have an English identity and, secondly, that England is so large. A regional approach that gave real significance and political structures to regions within England would help resolve that issue.
Living in Cumbria for the past 25 years—having been very much part of the south-east before that—has demonstrated to me that people have a strong Cumbrian identity which can be related to a northern identity. These are the kinds of issues which would come out, and with which we could begin to grapple, in a convention.
I end with an anecdote. Immediately after the referendum my younger grandson, who was then 13, coming up to 14, rang me in an activated frame of mind because they had had in his comprehensive school a mock referendum and 80% had voted in favour of remain. He was struck by this and said to me, “Grandpa, I want to ask you a question. Was your mother Scottish?”. He had not known her; she had died before he was born. I said, “She certainly was Scottish”. She had become very much part of England during the war and so on, but she was Scottish. He said, “I thought so. Will you give me a promise that if Scotland goes independent and remains committed to staying in the European Union you will immediately apply for dual nationality?”.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, recalled the irritation of Governments when Parliament entered a kind of seminar state. However, I have found this seminar immensely instructive and have learned a great deal.
I follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on the question of identity. The Motion refers to stability but, as we all know, we face a time of huge instability—not only the political instabilities of which we are all aware but a planetary instability. This is the first generation of people who have incontrovertible evidence of how much damage is being done to the planet and perhaps the last generation which will be able to do anything substantial about it. So we are facing not only political instability but planetary instability.
One of the forces making for instability is a reassertion of national identities—an immensely powerful elemental force. For example, it is a fact of great significance that the former subjects of the Soviet empire asserted themselves against its power as peoples with particular histories, loyalties and allegiances and not in the name of some abstract concept of individual rights. This widespread search for identity—movingly evoked by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Judd—has surfaced in the Brexit debate and in the difficulties faced by the EU in applying the west European model to the liberated countries of eastern Europe.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that in our own islands the resurgence of national identities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which preceded Brexit, has had consequences which have enriched our life as a United Kingdom. The various devolution measures may have been piecemeal but they were a response to the new reality. I agree with other noble Lords who have spoken that this leaves us with the need to face the consequences of this huge elemental force for England.
I was Bishop of Stepney at the time of the communal riots in the East End when people were going around insisting on the need to respect the culture of British Bangladeshis. In one school I was confronted by a furious teenager who said, “What’s my effing culture then, Bish?”. Your Lordships can imagine that these words have reverberated and stayed with me over the years. He felt a real sense of cultural loss and poverty which did not dispose him to tolerance but rather to lashing out. You cannot exorcise the evil of hatred of the other by creating a cultural and spiritual vacuum. You have to recognise its reality and build institutions around it which allow it to express itself in a constructive way. If we are to live harmoniously and creatively together in a genuinely pluralistic culture, we have to recognise the power of shared identity and familiar customs in our common life.
As other noble Lords have said, the devolution project must be extended to England, with a renewed attempt to re-localise decision-making, especially now in the light of the experience of the referendum campaign, which revealed how many people feel marginal to an overcentralised, remote political process.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for initiating this debate.
My overall conclusion is that there will be no effects of Brexit other than it being weaponised by individual political parties for whatever they see as their own advantage, but I believe there will be unforeseen consequences of Brexit which may now be coming to the surface. All my political life, devolution has been an issue. I began in the middle 1960s. Gwynfor Evans had been elected as a Welsh nationalist Member of Parliament and in November 1967 Winnie Ewing became a Scottish National Party MP in a by-election caused by Harold Wilson putting Tom Fraser into the chairmanship of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, having learned nothing about losing by-elections from Lord Sorensen. Winnie Ewing won. She went on to have a long and distinguished career in Europe and became known as “Madame Ecosse”. I say that by way of background.
I am not particularly a fan of devolution. I take a very similar view to Gordon Brown about the advantages of countries and nations working together. That is one reason why I am a strong supporter of the EU. However, I also counsel people to believe that the people who voted in the referendum were not concerned about the United Kingdom. In East Anglia, they were concerned about immigration, taking back control and what Brussels might do to them. As an active campaigner in the referendum debate, I did not hear Scotland or Wales mentioned on a single occasion.
People have mentioned our precious union. That is rather like the special relationship. We often mention it here, but you never hear it mentioned in Washington. I am afraid the precious union does not play to the gallery in East Anglia at all. As far as people there are concerned, Scotland is a very different country, as are Wales and Ireland.
Nobody seems to have quite twigged to the fact that there is a big difference between Scotland and Ireland over Brexit. The difference is simply this: one day there will be a vote, and if Ireland votes for reunification, Northern Ireland will automatically become part of the European Union. It will not need to apply because it is covered by the German Democratic Republic convention that a country that unites itself peacefully will have automatic entry. If the island of Ireland united, it would join the EU instantly. It could not be stopped under the treaties and the way the EU is structured. Scotland would have a very different perspective. As my friends in Madrid will tell you, it would be a long and difficult negotiation because Madrid, which does not recognise Kosovo, for instance, is not going to set any precedent that might damage its internal cohesion, which is as fragile as ours. That is possibly one of the unforeseen consequences.
I would like to see a greater sense of solidarity in the United Kingdom. We seem to spend all our time talking about devolving and getting away from each other. We will soon be the most overgoverned nation in Europe. At the moment, that trophy is held by Belgium, where I live part of the time. All I will say is that for every layer of government, there is an added layer of confusion, so on the settlement, let us settle down and leave it for a time because nothing is to be gained from constantly meddling with it. It may need tidying at the edges, but I do not think it needs fundamentally looking at again.
My final word is to a party not represented in this Chamber. I wish that the other parties in Northern Ireland would get together and get the Administration in Northern Ireland up and running again. It is very difficult to treat Northern Ireland seriously when you see parties deliberately stopping the development of the democratic process there. If they believe in Ireland, I ask them to respect the people of Ireland.
My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Lisvane for this vital discussion. The Brexit settlement, whatever its final nature, has had to include discussions about Gibraltar. It is technically outside the United Kingdom, but the Gibraltar discussions have an impact on Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. The attitudes and approaches of the United Kingdom Government or, more correctly, Her Majesty’s Government, have an implication for territories where Her Majesty remains sovereign and Head of State. It is not just a fact of the nature of our unwritten constitution; it is also about the nature of the constitution that we display beyond the borders of the United Kingdom to the territories where Her Majesty is sovereign.
In this Parliament—certainly in another place—we are used to what might be called disputatious debate, where things can be aggressively said across the Chamber, one to the other. It can be extremely distracting, and the tone of how that debate is conducted has affected whether we believe that this United Kingdom will hold together, which has wider implications. It could be said that this Brexit process has caused distracted debasement of our national political order. The tone of what should have been the representation of the best of British democracy, as seen abroad by Her Majesty’s other territories, has instead been a dogfight of refusals and an inability sometimes to accept and consider compromises in the national interest or to hear one another through. It is even possible that we might suffer the greatest broken promise of Brexit: based on party arguments, Westminster could be seen as untrusted and incapable of serving the national interest. I am sure that is not a model that Her Majesty would wish her other territories to follow, given that we set them free in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s to follow a model that allowed proper politics and proper democracy based on compromises.
We often speak about the importance of soft power to the United Kingdom—soft power framed in great institutions such as the NHS, the BBC, our archives, our museums, our universities and, of course, Parliament. If the display of this important soft power in a world that needs the reality of that soft power to be for its benefit, not for its dismissal, is one that cannot settle issues of union, collaboration and partnership, and even our relationship with our nearest neighbour—by country, let alone by community—this Parliament will have failed in the soft realities of Brexit. This is not about how we leave the European Union but about how we conduct the processes by which we leave, the relationships between the parts of the United Kingdom and the display of what this mature democracy should be for the nations that are forming, from fledgling beginnings, what they want to be—the ideal model of responsible and honourable leadership.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Hastings. His reference to the dogfight of refusals emanating from the Palace of Westminster to our friends around the world will ring with me for some time.
I add my voice to the echo in the Chamber by thanking my noble friend Lord Lisvane for securing this important debate—what immaculate timing. Like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I am 50% Scottish and 50% English. I live two-thirds of the time in England. My family name is thoroughly Scottish but my title is English, and my heart is in the north. I feel quite well qualified to speak in this debate, but noble Lords will understand that my comments relate principally to Scotland.
The Scottish National Party is the largest party in the Scottish Government. It does not have an overall majority, but its declared objective is, without question, independence. It is in the name. It already frustrates the UK Government’s attempts and endeavours wherever it can. While it is the largest party at Holyrood, Scotland was bitterly divided in 2014 during the independence referendum. Particularly bitter was the division in the communities—particularly rural communities—and it was even more harmful among many families.
Rather than trying to trumpet the possible advantages of independence, there was far too much anti-union marketing in that campaign. It was aimed at the heart, not the head. Visions were displayed of a popular film actor, swathed in tartan and wielding a claymore, reminding those who read the posters of that magnificent victory at Bannockburn approximately 700 years ago. The nationalist party in Scotland feeds on all this for its popularity and support.
All that said, we must not forget that, like Northern Ireland, Scotland voted to remain in 2016, with 55% in favour of doing so. It is an unfortunately easy stick with which to drum the rhythm beat of Westminster-bashing, but Scotland did vote that way and we must respect it and try to understand why. It suits their agenda—a subject so divisive anyway. So, as the Brexit debate unfolds, or cascades, in front of us, we must expect a greater threat to union stability. It will continue to feed the beast of division north of the border.
To counter this threat to the union, we need to build a stronger relationship among all the member countries. In an era of devolving powers, we—the union as represented in Westminster—must decide what we want from the union and, much more importantly, what member countries want from Westminster. Only through appreciation of what the union has to offer each of its parts can we hope to build a positive relationship. Let us take the opportunity of this divided moment to lay bare the strengths and frustrations of our union before perhaps we attempt to rewrite—or, rather, to write—our constitution.
My Lords, originally I did not intend to speak but quite a number of misleading statements concerning my party have been made during this debate and they should not go unanswered.
I have no doubt that Brexit has presented a great challenge to the people of the United Kingdom and a great challenge to the Government. However, it was decided by the people of the United Kingdom that the UK should leave the EU, and that must be honoured. One could of course ask how we got there. We did not get there by chance. Looking back over history, I was reminded that a certain Nick Clegg walked out of the Commons on 26 February 2008 when the then Speaker, Michael Martin, refused to call a Liberal Democrat amendment demanding a referendum on the EU. Another Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament was then expelled from the Chamber. In their 2010 election manifesto, the Liberal Democrats called for a national vote on UK membership of the EU. The only problem was that, when they got it, they did not like the result, but of course that is not how democracy works. When you call a referendum and ask the people their view, you should respect the will of the people.
During the previous debate on Brexit, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said that I had suggested that we should discount the 88% of the nationalists who voted against Brexit. I did not say that they should be discounted; I said that 56% of the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain and 44% for Brexit, but 66% of unionists voted for Brexit. I remind this House that seven Members in another place were elected and the only barrier to them coming to the United Kingdom Parliament is the barrier that they themselves have erected. They can certainly speak for the 88% of nationalists but I am proud to speak as a unionist. I believe that the Brexit vote was taken not as a regional vote but as a vote for the whole of the United Kingdom.
There was also mention of the threat of violence. That is a very serious matter to raise. Coming from a part of the country and from a family that have endured the reality of violence and the murder of my loved ones, I suggest that we should not even be talking about the threat of violence if the Government continue with Brexit.
This is a serious matter and we are faced with a problem. The Prime Minister has offered to have talks across all the parties but the leader of the Labour Party has slammed that offer as a stunt. I believe that all parties are obliged by the people to seek a way forward to gain a resolution to this vital issue. She has offered talks and it would be remiss if we did not take them up in a constructive way, seeking a way forward for the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, in my youth, the union was strong. Not only had the four nations survived two world wars side by side but there was a community of interest that bound people together. Coal miners faced the same hazards in pits across Britain. The Gresford hymn is still played and sung annually at the Durham Miners’ Gala to commemorate the 266 miners killed underground at the Gresford pit in 1934. Steelworkers from Merthyr to Shotton, Sheffield and Motherwell had common interests, and workers in the shipyards of Belfast and Glasgow, Liverpool and the Tyne shared common dangers.
However, as those great UK-wide industries declined and departed, the solidarity of the union weakened. Devastated communities were left isolated—high and dry. Then the European project got under way. European development funds underpinned the economies of areas in decline, and nowhere has benefited more than Wales. European structural funds have invested more than £4 billion in supporting many thousands of jobs and creating new enterprises. Europe helped to stabilise the union at a time of profound economic and social change.
Devolution has played an important part in creating stability. In Wales we regard Sir John Redwood not so much as the architect of devolution but as its cause. As Secretary of State between 1993 and 1995, two years before the 1997 referendum, he attacked the non-governmental organisations delivering services in Wales with Thatcherite zeal, halved public funding to the Welsh Development Agency and cut his own Welsh Office staff, outsourcing to the private sector. He banned the use of the Welsh dragon on a leaflet entitled Wales in Europe and refused to second staff to ensure a Welsh presence in Brussels. He boasted that he had returned £100 million of the funding allocated to Wales, unspent, to the Treasury. He travelled home to Wokingham every night to avoid staying in Wales, refused to sign documents in the Welsh language because he did not understand them, and his rendition of the Welsh national anthem remains a YouTube classic that is very dear to our hearts. Therefore, we thank him for ensuring for us the slim majority of 0.3% that brought devolution to Wales two years after his regime, and we wish him a similar outcome for his dreams in the ERG.
It is that same contempt—that imperial condescension, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, put it, or colonial complacency, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, described it—which has been exhibited in the Brexit negotiations. As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, pointed out, the devolved Administrations were not consulted. The Joint Ministerial Committee did not meet for eight months, the joint letter written by Mark Drakeford and Mike Russell in protest on behalf of Wales and Scotland was ignored and the recommendations by the committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, were put on the shelf. It is not surprising that the Government struggled and, in the case of Scotland, failed to get legislative consent to the withdrawal Bill.
Brexit involves abandoning EU mechanisms that have delivered the most generous regional assistance that Wales has ever seen in favour of a shared prosperity fund of indeterminate size and effect. This fund will be in the partisan political control of a UK Government, dominated by England, whose instincts are, as my noble friend Lord Wallace pointed out, incorrigibly centralist. I do not think Wales will get a fair deal. European funds have been distributed on the basis of need but I strongly suspect that this shadowy new fund will be distributed, like the Barnett formula, on a crude headcount.
In the last year we have observed the abandonment by the Westminster Government of exciting plans for the Swansea tidal lagoon and the electrification of the railway to Swansea. Japanese investment is under threat in the proposed new power station at Wylfa, as we discussed earlier today. Agricultural support is not guaranteed beyond 2020. Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota and Airbus—all industries with vital outlets in Wales—have announced plans to move investment into Europe. As for steel, Anthony Taylor, the former mayor of Port Talbot and a steelworker for 39 years, told the Financial Times last March that a hard Brexit would be disastrous for the local economy:
“We are going to have to compete in markets that we are not big enough to compete in. It’s OK to say we will take back control, but control of what? It makes me a bit a nervous to see ministers going around the world trying to sign trade deals with anybody and everybody. It doesn't look good”.
Independence has not been a strong sentiment in Wales. It was a passion that dared not speak its name. A recent analysis has shown that in the 20 years between 1997 and 2017 the word “independence” appeared 150 times in the SNP manifestos but only 15 times in the manifestos of Plaid Cymru. It was therefore a sign of these Brexit times that Adam Price, who recently defeated Leanne Wood for the leadership of Plaid, campaigned on an independence platform and wrested the leadership from her.
I wish the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, whom I congratulate on getting this debate, well. I will certainly study it and I promise to respect it in the morning. However, if Brexit happens, I am with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in believing that the movement for separation will grow. I hesitate to talk about Northern Ireland since I once asked the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, what was wrong with a united Ireland, and he told me to wash my mouth out. However, a special relationship between Northern Ireland and the EU through the Republic of Ireland could have a very positive benefits for the people and economy of that Province. The special economic zone of Shenzhen, founded in 1982 on the borders of Hong Kong, has caused a market town of 30,000 to grow into a metropolis of nearly 13 million people. We talked on Tuesday in this Chamber about the flood of expensive English lawyers who have already joined the Irish legal profession in Dublin to protect their existing businesses in Europe. Belfast could attract them and other leading service industries for the same reason. A referendum on the border is only a generation away—and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, will respect its outcome. There may be much attraction then for a prosperous Northern Ireland seeking at least a confederation with the south.
Thirteen of the 27 countries of the EU have smaller populations and economies than Scotland, and five are smaller than Wales. If Brexit happens, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to envisage a successful confederation of Celtic states as part of the single European market and in a customs union. There was a time when the United Kingdom was more united and devolution seemed just as far away. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and I should resume our talks, adjourned in 1967, for the formation of an alliance of Welsh radicals.
Brexit, which makes people poorer, will weaken the bonds and, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just pointed out, adds to the instability that the many problems of the modern world present us with now.
My Lords, I rise to speak immediately after a Welshman and sitting directly under the magisterial presence of another one whose speech beguiled us and perhaps raised the level of our thinking to a noble vision of what can be achieved if the will is there.
This time last year, I was cutting my teeth in the brutal world of politics, of which I had no experience whatever, out of my depth, swimming against the tide and trying hard to understand what was happening in what was then the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. What a place to begin to familiarise yourself with due process. It is process that I would like to concentrate upon, picking up on remarks that have been made from around the Chamber about how we go about taking forward a discussion of issues as complex as this. I will not repeat things that have been said in varying ways, although I will want to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane—a good Welsh place of origin, if I may say so; I can recommend a lovely place for us to eat together some time when I visit there—for raising our sights. We have all been groping around in the dark and plodding along a path whose destination at this stage we have not yet identified, but he has raised our sights and reminded us that, when all this trouble and strife is over, there is going to be a world waiting to be recreated, relationships that have to be mended and an ongoing story that has to be told.
My clear remembrance of some of the discussions a year ago on the withdrawal Bill, Clause 11 in particular, gives me the substance of what I want to share now. When Clause 11 appeared in that proposed legislation, it showed just how out of touch the Government were. Instantly there rose to arms the Law Society, the Hansard Society, the Bar Council and the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House—all of them indicating that it simply could not work. For a long time, having promised us a resolution of the contradictions that had been identified, the Government were not forthcoming with a suggested alternative. It was on Report, as many will remember, that eventually things in fact got rewritten.
The changes were so radical that the original now is lost and for the attention of archaeologists in a thousand years’ time—but the basic element within it was a spirit of compromise in order to reach the new Clause 11. I remember working with David Lidington, Mark Drakeford and Michael Russell, all of us trying our hardest to give our attention to the document on restructuring Wales, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. It was the work of Steffan Lewis, whose memory I too want to honour. This remarkable young man gave us a White Paper showing a negotiating position within six months of the referendum. Is that not what the national Government should have been giving us—material to work with?
As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said, that negotiating position was formulated before red lines were drawn. We might have had to come to that, but this was open and embracing. We looked at that, recognising that, in the eventual Clause 11, consideration would have to be given to all those areas where commonalities cross borders. We recognised that, out of the 120 or so areas, over 100 could be managed quite easily with existing modalities, mechanisms and arrangements. There were 20 or so that would need special frameworks within which we would have to sort things out—and we pledged to achieve that. We recognised that the Joint Ministerial Council, to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, referred, was really down on its uppers. Nobody was happy with it. The splendid briefing paper we received from the Library mentions the need to beef that up. It needs to be beefed up; it does not have to be second-rate people coming along to it in a spirit of boredom and ennui.
So there we were, discussing, negotiating and coming forward with something which the Government were eventually pleased to put into their legislation. That methodology has been missing from the rest of the discussions between—what is it?—London and Brussels, the European Union and the United Kingdom, or a few individuals centred in No. 10, Chequers or wherever. When the agreement was eventually published, with its accompanying policy document, it made no mention of either Wales or Scotland. The die was cast. That document came out of an entirely different set of preconsiderations. Nobody had been consulted. There was no room for compromise. I do not know how you make your way forward when that is the spirit that has produced the working documents that will affect the future of this country well into the years ahead.
We just have to express our confidence in the methodology used by those who worked on that Bill a year ago, showing that it can be done. David Lidington in the Cabinet Office was magnificent and accommodating; he put his officials at our disposal, checked things for us and looked for extra information. It was an exercise in how to negotiate—which, from my reading at a distance of all that has happened on the official front, has been entirely absent. So here we are. What have we learned? We have learned that because the agreement is so at odds with everything that the restructuring Wales document was about, the Welsh Assembly felt obliged to reject absolutely everything that has come forward through the other channel. We are now in a very difficult place indeed. Scotland will have its own stance and so will Northern Ireland.
What do I read while sitting here enjoying this feast of oratory, rhetoric and wisdom that the House of Lords is famous for? Some of us look at our phones now and again to see what is happening in the real world outside, and I see that the spokesperson for the Prime Minister has said that she is entering into discussions with senior politicians from other parties with “no change” in her basic principles. There will be no market that we can all belong to. There will be no bending of those principles that we have heard ad nauseam. In a Statement made in the other place on Monday, the Prime Minister herself promised, as a concessionary point to the people of Ireland, that they would have a place at the negotiating table as this agreement was taken forward after we left the Union. Well, congratulations to Northern Ireland—but what about Scotland and Wales? What about the discussions on which will depend the ethos and timbre of the kind of country we are when the Brexit thing is behind us? We have had a deplorable lack of consultation. This debate has proved, again and again from various parts of the House, just what might have been done differently. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, paid tribute to the qualities of the Minister, and it is now up to him to live up to those remarks.
My Lords, if that was the speech of a novice, we look forward to hearing from the noble Lord when he finds his length. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this timely and exceptionally well-informed debate. In particular, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who chose and introduced it, this time without the colourful reference to his maiden aunts.
The noble Lord has listened to more hours of debate in Parliament on the union—many of them I expect involuntarily—than any of us. He has unrivalled insight into the constitutional and legislative implications of what has happened in the past and what is happening now. I am therefore pleased that at this time of constitutional change, with our eyes turned outwards to the EU, he has provided us with the opportunity to look inwards—as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, has just told us—to the far older, far stronger bonds between our nations, which have enabled us to overcome past challenges, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, told us. This is an opportunity to see how those bonds might be strengthened in the future. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose managed to put the relationships in a historical context by drawing on recollections of his ancestors.
I will say straight away that the Government take the warnings from the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and others who have spoken in this debate extremely seriously. I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lords, Lord Lisvane and Lord Hain, and others have done with the Constitution Reform Group to bring stability to the union, an objective which we all share. The Minister for the Constitution looks forward to meeting that group soon, and I will return to the Bill in a moment.
Speaking on “The Andrew Marr Show” earlier this month, the Prime Minister said that, if the vote was lost on Tuesday, we would be in uncharted waters, and that of course has consequences for the union. In our debate, we have had some professional political cartographers steering us away from the jagged rocks below the cliff edge to which some siren Brexiteers entice us, and indicating where calmer waters and more favourable winds may prevail. No deal would be bad for all of us but it would create particular political tensions in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as we have heard today from my noble friends Lord McInnes and Lord Dunlop, and from the noble Lords, Lord Thurlow, Lord Hannay and Lord Hay, who spoke about the backstop. I think we were all moved by the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about Wales and the late Steffan Lewis, to whom he paid tribute.
It is worth rewinding briefly to see how we got here. Of course, the centrifugal forces within the UK predate the Brexit referendum, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said in his opening remarks. This was repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres. We saw the growth in political support for Scottish independence when the SNP unexpectedly won overall control at Holyrood, and in Northern Ireland we have seen growing support for the party that believes in a united Ireland. The Brexit referendum crystallised and added momentum to these forces.
During our debate, there has been criticism of the decision to hold referendums, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, reminded us of how we got here. I am personally cautious about referendums as they can cause tension with our parliamentary democracy, but there are some issues which it cannot satisfactorily resolve. For example, the SNP, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, was never going to win a majority in Westminster to deliver Scottish independence, yet there was clearly significant support for it in Scotland. The referendum was the right way to resolve that issue. Likewise, UKIP was never going to win a Westminster election, but in 2014 it topped the poll in the EU elections on an unequivocal manifesto of withdrawal. Again, the referendum was the right way to resolve this question and lance the boil.
Likewise, there is provision for a referendum in Northern Ireland should the conditions in the Belfast agreement ever be fulfilled, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. I was impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said: that in Northern Ireland, more important than Brexit is the wish of the population to see the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. They see that as their top priority.
In passing, I understand all the arguments against a second referendum, which is not government policy, but I do not accept that our democratic tradition is so fragile that it could not withstand one, were it to be held.
The criticism that can be made of the Brexit referendum is not so much of the decision to hold it, as of the subsequent and unsuccessful campaign to remain, recently revealed on our screens as having been outwitted by a slick if, at times, irresponsible operation acting below the radar of conventional politics and masterminded by an arch political disruptor. That referendum crystallised, but did not cause, the different views in the UK on whether we should remain part of the EU. Two countries voted to leave and two to remain. The consequences of that have been the focus of today’s debate.
I turn to the constructive proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in his Bill to help bind the UK together. I commend him for identifying the broadly undisputed purposes of the United Kingdom in Clause 2. I also applaud the heroic endeavour to distinguish between what are called “central policy areas” and matters that are devolved to the four national Parliaments. Here, I particularly welcome the requirement that the Governments of each nation co-operate on matters of national importance, such as aspects of defence and security. Co-operation is one of the key principles of our current memorandum of understanding between the UK Government and the devolved Governments, and its operation over recent years has been positive. Such an approach should continue. I propose to say a word or two in a moment about one of the themes running through the debate on the relationship between government and the devolved Assemblies.
Reading the press release put out by the steering committee on 9 October, I was struck by the following sentence:
“the Bill asserts that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and (if it so chooses) England is each entitled to its own internal sovereignty”.
The noble Lord might find this an unfair comment, but I found it perverse that a Bill that seeks to bring us closer together should have as its starting point the total separation of the four parts of the union. Even if they subsequently agreed to pool sovereignty, that initial step and taste of sovereignty might make subsequent independence easier to achieve, a point made by my noble friend Lord Dunlop.
My first question on reading the Bill relates to the asymmetrical nature of current devolution settlements, which I think correctly reflects the different histories and cultures of our four nations. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all treated differently. The Bill does not appear to make provision for this, and has a one-size-fits-all approach that does not reflect the findings of the Silk and Smith commissions, nor the views of the people of the UK, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord McInnes.
My second question relates to one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, about adjusting the settlement over time to reflect changing circumstances. We can do that at the moment and we do so relatively easily. English votes for English laws is a case in point. It has embedded fairness and balance into Parliament’s law-making process, ensuring that MPs representing English constituencies can consent to legislation that affects only England while maintaining the key principle that all MPs from across the UK can debate, amend and vote on every piece of legislation.
We have also continued to move forward at pace to decentralise governance in England, bringing powers closer to the people so that services can be delivered that are attuned to their local needs. I challenge the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I think said that little had changed since Redcliffe-Maud. Through the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, we have taken major steps to decentralise governance in England through devolution deals. Seven city regions are now headed up by their own elected mayors, with their own devolved powers and budgets.
I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. An enthusiastic debate over devolution is continuing across Yorkshire and a number of further suggestions have already been discussed locally. We are of course willing to discuss proposals that have support behind them, cover a sensible economic area and do not break up areas that already have long-standing integrated services. We are currently considering the information recently submitted by the 18 Yorkshire leaders, but we have always been clear that the first step to any devolution deal across Yorkshire is the full implementation of the 2015 Sheffield City Region devolution deal. We want Sheffield to enjoy the full benefits of its 2015 deal, including £900 million of investment.
Turning back to the Bill for a moment, the future changes set out in Part 2 of the Schedule seem infinitely more complicated and cumbersome, and risk locking us into a settlement that becomes outdated—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. Constitutional development in the UK needs to evolve to reflect circumstances of the day and be flexible enough to meet new challenges.
The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, will understand that his Bill is unlikely to have an easy passage. My attention was caught by Clause 28(1), which says:
“On commencement of this Section, the House of Lords shall cease to form part of Parliament”.
Well, we may need to spend a little time on that one. The noble Lord will understand better than anyone that a Bill heralding the most significant constitutional change in our history will take a Session or two to make progress.
What are the Government doing to strengthen the union during Brexit? We recognise the importance of working closely with the devolved Administrations throughout the negotiation process and welcome the regular engagement that has taken place through forums such as the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations and the Ministerial Forum on EU Negotiations.
Here I might depart from my text—always a risk—and say that one of the themes running through the debate has been what the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, called “imperial condescension”, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to as a “power grab”, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred to in more derogatory terms. But it was clear from what the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said, that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right honourable friend David Lidington, wants his approach to have that element of respect and to promote good relationships.
I take on board the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the noble Lords, Lord Lisvane and Lord McConnell, my noble friend Lord McInnes and a number of others that this relationship should be rebooted. Comments were made about the regularity of the meetings and Ministers’ attendance. It is quite clear from this debate that the institutions and the quality of the dialogue need to be improved. As a result of the exchanges on that subject, I propose to talk to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whenever I can and feed through to him the theme that has consistently run through some of the speeches on both sides. I know that officials are working closely with counterparts in the devolved Administrations to take forward this review of intergovernmental relationships. On 19 December, the Prime Minister, together with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, reviewed the progress made so far of the review at the JMC. It is important for us to look, in the light of our debate, at the principles and machinery that underpin the relationships and how we can best ensure—
My right honourable friend David Lidington has a key role to play in building up a relationship with the devolved assemblies. He has attended a large number of these meetings. If the noble Lord looks at the allocation of ministerial responsibility, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has this as part of his portfolio.
To revert to what I was saying, an interim report was presented and agreed on 19 December. All the Administrations have tasked officials to make a further report to the JMC(P) in due course. I will ensure that the views expressed during this debate are taken on board as that review takes place.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, asked about legislative consent Motions. We are fully committed to the Sewel convention and its associated practices for seeking consent set out in the devolution guidance notes. We are continuing to seek legislative consent, taking on board the devolved Administrations’ views and work on the EU exit Bills according to established practices, just as we have always done.
I may need to write to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, about the letter from Mr Tusk that she referred to but, in principle, the Government are committed to the Belfast agreement, as they always have been, and remain steadfast.
We have been working with the devolved Administrations on what a deal might look like in practice domestically. We are committed to preserving and strengthening the decision-making abilities of the devolved Administrations and, as we have made clear, the devolved institutions will continue to be able to make any decision that they can make now after exit. As set out in the EU withdrawal Act, as new powers are returned to the UK and where they are within areas of devolved competence, they will flow directly to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
We are also working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations to agree where we should continue to take UK-wide approaches and what they will look like. These common frameworks referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, will be established in specific policy areas and help preserve the UK internal market, preventing four different sets of rules in different parts of the UK making it more difficult for a cheesemaker in Monmouthshire to sell to customers in Bristol, or for a farmer in Aberdeenshire to sell their beef in Berwick-upon-Tweed.
On funding, which a number of noble Lords mentioned, we are committed to the Barnett formula. We believe it is a fair and transparent way of funding the devolved Administrations. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised a good point on accountability. I suppose the answer is that the Scottish Executive are accountable to the Scottish Parliament, and ultimately to the Scottish electorate, for the way in which they spend the money—including the money that they get from Westminster.
In the turbulence of the current political situation, it is easy to lose sight of the background to this debate. The bonds between our nations exist not only because we share values and histories but because, time and again, we have shown that we can achieve more when we operate together. That is why we believe in the union and will continue to govern in the interests of every part of it. That commitment is reflected in the way that we work across the entirety of the UK: from high-profile, job-creating investments such as the aircraft carrier being built at Rosyth to the no less important work behind the scenes, such as officials working hard to ensure that Welsh beef and lamb can be sold across the globe. Initiatives such as the industrial strategy drive growth across the whole of the UK, while sector deals and investment in research and development will support the industries of the future, whether in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England.
I will try to answer one or two specific questions. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose asked about the Supreme Court. We challenged the Scottish Bill on the basis that it was not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. We are grateful to the Supreme Court for providing greater clarity. This is not simply a question of where constitutional powers lie, important as such questions are. Greater clarity was needed to ensure that our statute book functions properly and the law is clear.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, on Gibraltar: let no one be in any doubt that on the future partnership the UK will negotiate for the whole UK family including Gibraltar, as the Prime Minister said on 25 November. As the Chief Minister said, this is a deal which works for Gibraltar.
Where do we go from here to prevent the centrifugal forces I referred to earlier driving apart the component parts of the UK? We need a deal with the EU that those in Northern Ireland and Scotland in particular feel comfortable with, even though a majority voted to remain, and we need to avoid no deal.
In 2010, my party was the largest one but it had no majority. The country was looking over a cliff edge after the collapse of global markets, with concerns about our currency and our financial and political instability. Then, in the interests of the country, we reached out to those sitting on the Opposition Benches—our opponents in the recently concluded general election. An offer to talk was rightly accepted, without any preconditions. We then had to abandon some manifesto commitments; there were tensions within my party that had to be managed as we formed the then coalition. But it was the right thing to do and I remind my former colleagues in another place, understandably worried about their future, that our party came together then and, when the country passed its verdict, we went on to win a general election for the first time in nearly 25 years.
Now, we do not need another five-year coalition but, picking up a point that I think was made by the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, we need to work together again in the interests of the country. The current deal is dead but I hope that a reformed one can be found, acceptable to those who want to leave, so that the referendum box can be ticked, but also acceptable to those who, like me, voted remain so that we can do so with minimum turbulence, because on leaving we move into the transition period where there is stability. Your Lordships’ House has debated these issues today calmly and constructively, in contrast to the excitable atmosphere in another place, and we have put aside partisan points. That is the spirit in which the debate should now continue in both Houses of Parliament, with a view to arriving at an acceptable conclusion in the national interest.
My Lords, I will not attempt to respond to or summarise the debate in any way, as that role has been so admirably performed by the Minister. I will just say two things. First, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been an excellent debate. Secondly, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, that I think the hostelry in Lisvane he has in mind is the Black Griffin. I should be very happy to join him there. We might even persuade the Minister to join us for an extremely convivial discussion of the Act of Union Bill.