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Union Capability: Dunlop Review

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to publish the report of the Dunlop Review into UK Government Union capability.

My Lords, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office told the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 10 September, the Government intend to publish the Dunlop review before the end of the year.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, was asked to review the strengthening and sustaining of the union? Given the Prime Minister’s gaffe when speaking to northern MPs earlier this week, which fuelled the fires of nationalism, is it not time for the Dunlop report to be published now and for the Prime Minister to act on it?

My Lords, as I have said, the review will be published before the end of the year. It makes a number of recommendations, which Ministers are taking the time to consider carefully, before setting out how they will take them forward. Unfortunately, work has been delayed by a focus on the UK-wide response to Covid.

Polling carried out in September showed that the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was himself the major driver of voters in Scotland towards support for independence. Given that, does the Minister not agree that it is time for the Government to review their policies and attitudes towards Scotland?

My Lords, the Government believe in devolution. The individual devolution settlements and their effectiveness have been appraised on a range of occasions, in the last 20 years. The Prime Minister, quite rightly, drew attention to the threat posed by the SNP to the unity of our kingdom.

I have no doubt that the Dunlop review will be well informed and constructive, but I echo the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Government must address this issue urgently, given the Prime Minister’s recent remarks and the almost universal opposition expressed to almost all aspects of the UK Internal Market Bill. Does the Minister accept not only that we need clarity now to secure the devolution settlement, but that there is a case for a constitutional convention that respects devolution and achieves a collaborative approach to UK decision-making, rather than unilateral decisions by the UK Government?

My Lords, good contacts exist between the UK Government and devolved Administrations. I recently reported to the House on the positive development in the review of intergovernmental relations. I assure the House that the Government take these matters seriously. The Prime Minister has set up a Cabinet committee for union policy implementation to support the delivery of policies that sustain our union.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, far too often, the unionist case is framed by references to what we achieved together in the past, when we urgently need a modern compelling unionist vision for the future of our United Kingdom? This is unlikely to be the preserve of any one party; what is required is for unionists across the United Kingdom to come together and make common cause, if we are to preserve our great union and defeat those who would tear it apart.

My Lords, I very strongly agree with my noble friend, and spoke yesterday of the importance of not imputing bad intent where there is none. We are at our strongest when we work as one union, with the needs of all our citizens as the priority. The UK Government have provided billions in support of businesses and individuals in all parts of the UK during the Covid crisis. Our welfare system has been able to support people across the UK and our armed services have been invaluable. My noble friend is quite right: this is a story that unionists from all parties should tell.

The Prime Minister may choose to disparage the devolution settlement, but this House showed yesterday that it is not ready to destroy it, and we can infer that—like the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, and Sir John Major—the House thinks that it is better to improve and use rather than abuse the intergovernmental consensus-building mechanisms which exist. Why can we not get on with that now? Why must we wait until the end of the year before we see the Dunlop report? Can the Minister answer the pertinent questions which the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, put to him in the Chamber on 19 October? How do the Government react to Sir John Major’s lecture 10 days ago?

My Lords, I have not had the time to read Sir John’s lecture. I said that the review would be published before the end of the year. It is important that we do not denigrate the substantive progress being made in the review of intergovernmental relations. I commend the devolved Administrations and the UK Government in the work going on there. It is very risky to claim that there is no co-operative work going on in this kingdom.

My Lords, can I take the Minister back to his first Answer? He said that Michael Gove had said that the review would be published before the end of the year. In fact, Michael Gove linked this review to the UK internal market Bill, which is currently going through the House, and said that it would be published before the Bill received Royal Assent. Most of us assumed that to mean that what is in that review will be helpful to our deliberations on the Bill, which has the devolution settlement at its heart, and most of us think that the Government have got this wrong. Would the review by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, not be a helpful way to get to the bottom of some of these issues and have a proper informed discussion? It could help us with that, so why do the Government not publish it now, while we are discussing these very issues in legislation in your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, I have underlined the importance of the issues and said that the Government gave a Written Ministerial Statement recently about relations and transparency. The Government are determined to carry this work forward, so far as the UKIM Bill is concerned. I do not agree with the characterisation of it, and the Government will reintroduce Part 5 in the House of Commons.

Does the Minister understand the extent of the damage caused by the recent remarks of the Prime Minister, underlined by the sophistry of his subsequent attempt at explanation? He will be familiar with the old dictum that careless talk costs lives. In this case, careless talk costs votes.

My Lords, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons:

“I think what has unquestionably been a disaster is the way in which the Scottish nationalist party has taken and used devolution as a means not to improve the lives of its constituents, not to address their health concerns or to improve education in Scotland, but… constantly to campaign for the break-up of our country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/11/20; col. 315.]

I agree with him.

My Lords, on 10 November in Grand Committee, introducing the Common Rules for Exports (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, said that the EU Commission

“will exercise these powers in Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 10/11/20; col. GC 421.]

Can my noble friend explain how allowing a foreign power to exercise executive authority in a part of the United Kingdom is consistent with the Government’s commitment to taking back control and to the maintenance of the union?

My Lords, I have not seen my noble friend Lord Grimstone’s remarks in context, so I will respond to the noble Lord by letter.

Can the Minister, who throughout his career has been a powerful advocate for the union, agree that a strengthening of it is the cardinal requirement at this moment? Does he think that the recommendations of the Dunlop report will help to secure that great objective?

My Lords, I cannot anticipate the detailed response to the Dunlop report. I commend both my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Dunlop for their commitment to the union. I hope that the package of measures in the intergovernmental review, and in response to the Dunlop review and other work, will make very clear this Government’s commitment to sustaining our vital and precious union.

My Lords, I am a unionist but, given where we are and before the United Kingdom implodes, what workable alternatives can the Government advance beyond federalism as possibly the most equitable and pragmatic form of governance that would best serve the regions of the United Kingdom? We have divorced ourselves from the concept of EU regionalism and face challenges north of the border, the long underinvestment debate in the north of England, the current Northern Ireland complexities and, importantly, the UK’s citizenry across the regions generally feeling distanced from each other. It is all coming to roost.

My Lords, I do not agree that the United Kingdom is imploding. That is unhelpful talk. No political party in this country wishes to actively and swiftly break up the United Kingdom, except the one that I have mentioned. There is important co-operative work going on which will continue in full respect of the devolution settlement. We should all, in all parties, subscribe to that, as the noble Lord, Lord Caine, said.

Sitting suspended.