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Dunlop Review

Volume 809: debated on Monday 1 February 2021

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they (1) have taken, and (2) plan to take, as a result of the Dunlop Review into UK Government Union capability.

My Lords, we have made progress in many of the areas covered by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, and we will set out the Government’s response in full when we publish the review, shortly.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that it was way back on 4 July 2019 that the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, was asked to produce a report on measures to strengthen and sustain the union? He delivered his report within six months, and the very Minister who is answering this Question told me, in answer to my Question on 19 November last year, that the report and the Government’s response would be published by the end of that year. So how can we have any confidence in his answer today, that it will be published soon? Why are the Government afraid, or unwilling, to publish this report and their response?

My Lords, there is no question of fear—although I always rise to answer the noble Lord with some trepidation. I give the House the best advice I can at the time, and the hope then was to publish by the end of the year. We want to ensure that we provide as full a response to the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, as possible. As I have told the House before, the key component of that is related to the review of inter-governmental relations, and we are hoping to carry both those strands forward at the same time.

My Lords, the problems concerning vaccinations that have arisen in recent days clearly demonstrate that it has never been more important to strengthen the bonds that unite the four nations of our United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that when taking steps to implement the Dunlop review, the Government should seek to remove the serious impediments to trading goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland resulting from the application of Article 5 of the protocol? Does he accept that if agreement is not reached on these matters at the EU-UK joint committee, it may be necessary to invoke Article 16?

My Lords, I can certainly tell the noble Lord that we attach the profoundest importance to all parts of the United Kingdom, particularly Northern Ireland, to which he refers. I do not wish to go into what 1066 and All That would have called the unfortunate events of the weekend, but I assure the noble Lord that we believe that all action in relation to the protocol must be proportionate, and that discussions on this matter will continue.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if we do not make an effort, Scotland will become a republic separated from the United Kingdom, not because the majority—the moderate majority—want that, but because, to misquote Daniel O’Connell, England’s difficulty is Scotland’s opportunity? Are not the unionists from every part of the United Kingdom letting Ms Sturgeon—Glasgow’s de Valera—hold the floor because they fear confusing English nationalism with patriotic unionism, and are thus failing to make the powerful emotional and obvious economic case for the union?

My Lords, in answer to my noble and learned friend’s opening remark about a republic, I cannot conceive that anyone would wish to remove Her Majesty the Queen as our Head of State. As for the other part of his question, everybody should advocate the United Kingdom and our union, and should have no fear in doing so. That goes from the lowest to the highest in the land, and in every corner of our kingdom.

My Lords, the Dunlop review is about meeting the challenge of strengthening and maintaining the union. As each day passes, that task, as seen from Scotland, becomes more and more difficult, and constitutional changes will take time to deliver. Do the Government appreciate that they need to do much more now—from within Scotland, not just from Westminster—to make their voice heard there and their message understood?

The noble and learned Lord makes a very strong point. I agree with him—and, indeed, with the preceding question—that that voice for the union of the United Kingdom should be heard. We recognise that political differences exist between the Administration in Scotland and our Government, but our ambition remains to conclude jointly the inter-governmental relations review. That is one of the important strands behind this Question.

My Lords, the Dunlop review was completed before the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, so it may already be out of date. The chairs of the Scottish Affairs, Welsh Affairs and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees are as much in the dark as the rest of us. Can the Minister explain how Michael Gove can already be implementing the Dunlop recommendations when he has not even shared the report with the devolved Administrations?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is second to none in his commitment to reinforce the United Kingdom and to carry that work forward. So, almost by definition, he is acting constantly every day in line with the aspirations of the Dunlop report.

My Lords, sadly, the Prime Minister shows scant understanding of or respect for devolution. At the same time, the First Minister is obsessed with an independence referendum ahead of pandemic recovery but has no coherent or credible plan for how to achieve it. Is not this the moment to publish the Dunlop report and set out how the UK can move forward as four nations working together? How can we have confidence that the Government are implementing the report if they do not publish it?

My Lords, I have asked for a little patience from your Lordships’ House, but it will have been noted that you are asking for an early publication. What I would underline is what I said before: that we are working positively with the devolved Administrations in many of the areas covered by Dunlop, particularly to establish new intergovernmental structures. The Prime Minister has established the union policy implementation committee—a Cabinet committee to ensure that the Government’s priorities in relation to the United Kingdom are delivered—and work is going on.

My Lords, the Dunlop review also includes Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding the findings of some recent internet polls that use a self-selecting online sample, does it remain the Government’s view that a clear majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support the union, and that the requirements for a border poll are not satisfied? In the event of such a poll, would it be the policy of this Conservative and Unionist Government to use their union capability to campaign actively to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to the Belfast agreement, which sets out the circumstances that would require a border poll. Those are that, if at any time it appears likely that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK, they are obliged to call a referendum. The Government continue to monitor the evidence in this regard, but I can tell my noble friend that there is no clear evidence to support the idea that that is the case at this time. I can assure him that, were that ever to happen, this Government would campaign on the basis that the United Kingdom is a family of nations that works for everyone.

My Lords, those of us who so strongly support the union and its continuation know that it depends on trust, good will and understanding. Does the Minister think that those are helped by what appears to be a suppression of a report on the working of the union?

If it were characterised in that way, I do not think it would help. There is certainly no intention to suppress the report; it will be published, as I have told the House. The Government have been involved in constructive discussions with the devolved Administrations on how we secure continuing intergovernmental relations and good institutions to provide for that. I hope to be able to advise the House further on this shortly.

The BBC, funded by the United Kingdom taxpayer, has reduced the exposure of UK Ministers to television and radio audiences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but has greatly increased the exposure of Ministers of the devolved Administrations. This strengthens the perception of separateness and has contributed to a diminution of a feeling of Britishness and an increase in support for independence. Does the Minister not agree that in all parts of the UK much more airtime should be given to UK Ministers, and will he ensure that the incoming chairman and director-general of the BBC will correct the current harmful balance?

My Lords, I am not going to issue directions to anyone in terms of the BBC but I will say that some people have certainly found aspects of the coverage confusing and, indeed, perhaps not as optimistic as it might be in certain circumstances. I believe that the nation needs optimism and hope; there should be more emphasis on the joint efforts of the National Health Service, the British Army and other armed services and volunteers right across this country, which deserve the fullest exposure, publicity and support.