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House of Lords Hansard
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UK: System of Government
21 January 2020
Volume 801

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to exploring how (1) a federal, or (2) a confederal, system of government could be implemented in the United Kingdom.

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My Lords, the UK Government believe strongly in upholding the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union in history. Together, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous.

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I agree with the Minister, but would she and the Government consider turning the commission that was included in the Conservative Party manifesto into a UK constitutional convention to look at the federal and other options and to address the English democratic deficit? With the growing clamour for Scottish independence and Irish unification, the Government could otherwise end up not just with us leaving the European Union but with the break-up of the United Kingdom.

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I thank the noble Lord very much for chatting to me last week about this Question. Apart from the obvious practical difficulties, there is no guarantee that moving to a federal system would ensure that the union remained intact. We believe that our focus should be on working for the whole of our great country, to open up opportunities for people across our union and to unleash the productive power of every corner of the United Kingdom. I think my noble friend Lord Howe said everything that was to be said about the commission, but I am sure, as happened last week, that the department will listen to what is said in this Chamber, including what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has said.

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Does the Minister accept that my noble friend has a very good point about the need to examine this in detail? There is a case for looking at federalism and confederalism, but the problem within England is the size of the south-east: 20 million people live in that corner—one-third of the total UK population—of whom, incidentally, about 400,000 to 500,000 are Scots, who might want to vote if there was to be another referendum in Scotland. Will she look very carefully at the work of the commission to see whether it can be as wide and detailed as possible?

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Obviously, the commission will need to command public confidence through its membership and the way it operates. The Government are wholly mindful of that.

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My Lords, further to the reply my noble friend has just given about the commission, is it the Government’s position that there should be no legislation on constitutional matters before the commission has met in order to get a coherent view, or is it proposed that there should be some individual measures of constitutional reform in advance of the commission considering them?

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I thank my noble friend for that question. He is slightly jumping the gun, because we have a couple of reviews ongoing. We have the Dunlop review, which is looking into these matters, and the devolution White Paper. They are both due to report this year, so we will know more then.

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My Lords, given that the goal of a federal United Kingdom has been the policy of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats for longer than any Member of your Lordships’ House has been alive, I am somewhat disappointed that the Minister does not want to embrace it. However, given that in the Conservative manifesto there is also a commitment to look at the role of the House of Lords, is she prepared to look at the constitution of a second Chamber—preferably elected—that would give a weighted representation to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom? Doing so would not only be a building block for federalism but might well strengthen the bonds of the United Kingdom, which she and I obviously value so very much.

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I thank the noble and learned Lord for his question. The Government have no plans to go down the federal route at the moment. We are working to strengthen the union to ensure that the institutions and powers of the UK are used in a way that benefits people in every part of the country. I think we are showing that in the way we are investing in all four of our nations equally to make sure that everybody has the same opportunities.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the recent general election, the political party that suffered the greatest loss of votes and percentage of votes in Northern Ireland was Sinn Féin, and that it is incorrect to say that there is a growing demand for a united Ireland in Northern Ireland?

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Under the “new decade, new approach” agreement, the UK will provide the restored Northern Ireland Executive with a £2 billion financial package that delivers for the citizens of Northern Ireland. That is how we are showing our determination to ensure that Northern Ireland is not left behind, and our awareness of its problems.

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My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that whatever plans the Government might have for any changes, modernisation or refreshment of our constitution, there will be no place whatever for the continuation of the absurd system of the election of hereditary Peers?

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I am so glad that the noble Lord got that in. It is difficult for me to answer, because of who is behind me. I think that the noble Lord knows that I do not have an answer at the moment.

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My Lords, does my noble friend agree that simple measures could be taken in the short term which would do a great deal to enhance the reputation of Parliament? Committees of both Houses could meet around the country on a regular basis. That has been done in the past and should be developed.

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I agree with my noble friend; that is a good idea. After we leave the European Union, the shared prosperity fund is going to bind together the whole United Kingdom, tackling inequality and deprivation in each of our four nations. As we know from the devolution White Paper, ideas will be coming forward and we are going to do more in the regions.