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Constitution Inquiry

Volume 812: debated on Monday 14 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the suggestion by the former prime minister Rt Hon Gordon Brown of establishing an inquiry on the constitution.

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. The Government have no plans to establish an inquiry into the constitution.

My Lords, that is a typically complacent Whitehall response. Surely the Minister, who is more politically astute than people in Whitehall, must realise that there is a growing demand for decentralisation in England as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is not just Gordon Brown asking for a comprehensive review; people on the Minister’s own side, notably Lord Salisbury, and many others want such a review. Does he not realise that the future of the union is in peril if Government Ministers keep burying their heads in the sand like ostriches?

My Lords, I try to avoid sand, whether putting my head in it or not. I do not think this Government are complacent. I think there are difficulties with the kind of federal approach that the noble Lord describes because of the nature of the United Kingdom, but I assure him that the Government listen with respect to all those who express views, including former Prime Ministers.

My Lords, I am not sure whether I heard reference to federalism there. Does the Minister agree that, because of the nature of the debate and the threats to the union, we need to get ahead of the game in relation to the union and its associated constitutional arrangements, and that this is urgent? Will the Government ensure that such discussions are cross-party and cross-society when they do take place?

My Lords, all those kinds of discussions certainly benefit from the widest range of opinions. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, did raise the issue of a federal approach, and I responded to that. I assure the right reverend Prelate that the Government’s ears are always open.

My Lords, I fully understand that the idea of a single constitutional commission or inquiry has now been abandoned and replaced by a number of inquiries that are taking place or have taken place into different aspects and branches of our constitutional arrangements, which always need attention. But if we are to offer a better union, could my noble friend explain which body will look into the obvious and fundamental incompatibility between the evident wish of Scotland’s ruling party not just for improved devolution but for the actual sharing or taking of sovereignty and the central constitutional tenet, which we all hold, of the absolute sovereignty of our union Parliament here at Westminster? There is a problem, is there not?

My Lords, many bodies make an input into this debate—I would single out the great work of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, among others—but I repeat that the Government believe in a strong UK Parliament for a strong United Kingdom. The UK Parliament, which represents the whole of the United Kingdom, is sovereign, and the sharing of sovereignty would run counter to this core element of the UK constitution. The Government are committed to strengthening the union, and there is an earnest of that in the recent summit summoned by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

[Inaudible]—arrogant patriotism was an infantile disease like measles. In its new virulent form, it has led to Brexit and now threatens the union with Scotland. Does the Minister agree that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is right when he says that we should drop divisive talk of “us and them” and look to commonalities of interest to make for a more equal and stronger union?

My Lords, on constitutional reform, can the Minister confirm that, following the retirement of the Countess of Mar, all Peers among the 92 places reserved for hereditaries are men; that all 21 candidates in today’s by-election for three Conservative hereditaries are men; and that all 10 candidates for the Cross-Bench vacancy are men? Is this not utterly unacceptable? What are the Government going to do about it?

My Lords, the Government will continue to apply the law of the land until the law of the land is changed.

My Lords, the commitment to constitutional integrity and the absolute sovereignty of the UK Parliament comprise a piece of legal purism which I think the Government would criticise if the European Commission displayed such a tendency. Does the Minister recognise that the commitment to absolute UK sovereignty was what led to the division of Ireland? Does he not accept that insistence on it with regard to Northern Ireland and Scotland now is likely to lead to further division?

No, my Lords, I do not agree. We currently have a constitutional settlement in which there are reserved and devolved matters. I think we all believe that devolution has benefited the United Kingdom, and the Government’s priority—as the priority of all of us should be—is to make that work in amity and with commonality, as we were reminded earlier.

As my noble friend Lord Howell just reminded us, the Government have abandoned their manifesto commitment to set up a constitution, democracy and rights commission in the first year of this Parliament. They have instead announced that they are going to have a range of independent workstreams, to be announced in due course. Can my noble friend shed any light on what these workstreams might comprise, and whether any might involve the working of your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, I will not anticipate the answer that may or may not come to that question. Given the broad nature of the constitution, we are taking forward the work via a range of workstreams, as my noble friend said. So far as your Lordships’ House is concerned, I have the greatest reverence for this House, and I believe that any institution that does its work well and sticks to its last will gain respect.

I do not know whether the Minister has read the Haggard and Kaufman book, Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, but I wonder whether he shares its concern that without care and protection, our democratic strengths and constitution can be undermined by the lack of parliamentary, legal and press scrutiny. If he agrees, does he therefore think that a serious look at how government decisions are taken, in order to increase transparency and accountability, is now well overdue?

My Lords, within that question there are absolutes and particulars. Having had the honour to be elected by my fellow citizens many times in elections, my own view is that accountability to the people is fundamental, and I also believe that transparency and openness are extraordinarily important. In that respect, I agree with the noble Baroness.

Given the disparate and major changes to the constitution that have taken place in recent decades, does my noble friend agree that were any body set up to examine the constitution, it should engage in a take-stock exercise, making sense of where we are now rather than embarking on proposals for further change? Furthermore, does he agree that we should look at the union within the context of the constitution as a whole?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there is an element of taking stock as well as of seeking change. The glory of our constitution is that it is flexible and has evolved, and I am sure it will continue with that strength in the future.

My Lords, the pandemic has shown us how we need one another; different countries all depend on each other. So, any future discussion or referendum should not be about just separation, division or—often reluctant—centralisation; there is a federal solution that should certainly be top of the agenda when people come to discuss future constitutional arrangements.

I am not sure whether the noble Lord has finished; I hope he has. I made some comments on the federal approach. My view, and the Government’s view, is that we should bend every sinew to make the constitutional arrangements that we have now work; that is what this Government have sought to demonstrate.

My Lords, does my noble friend share my scepticism at the idea that the union will be saved by the kind of constitutional upheaval and tinkering currently put forward by Gordon Brown and others, which many people in this country will see as a huge distraction from the priorities of the British people? Rather, what is needed is a relentless focus from the Government on sharing prosperity, opportunity and security throughout this United Kingdom, as well as a constructive and positive unionist narrative that puts at its heart our common values and shared future as one nation.

I agree with my noble friend. The Government have ensured that citizens and businesses across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a £350 billion package of UK-wide support during the pandemic, protecting 1.7 million jobs in those countries and providing access to tests, key medicines and vaccines. The recent Budget further demonstrated our commitment to strengthening the union, with UK-wide policies including the extension of furlough and the self-employed scheme.