Skip to main content

Devolved Administrations

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what protocol they follow for working constructively with the devolved administrations.

My Lords, the United Kingdom Government are ready to act in line with the new arrangements of the joint review of intergovernmental relations, which establishes an up-to-date and fit-for-purpose system that supports effective collaboration. All Administrations have been working hard to conclude this review, with significant progress made on streamlining processes and emphasising positive co-operation.

The 2019 Tory manifesto contained an entire chapter on strengthening the union between the nations of the UK, but is it not the case that this Government’s internal market Act has made a mockery of that commitment by riding roughshod over the devolution settlements and rolling back the powers of the Senedd? Does the Minister accept that it undermines the devolution settlement when his Government bring forward initiatives such as levelling up and community renewal funds that have been drawn up without any consultation with the Welsh Government and are administered by UK government departments that have not operated in Wales for more than 20 years?

No, my Lords, I do not agree, and I do not believe we should accentuate divisions within our United Kingdom. We are working with the devolved Administrations to develop an approach to how we consider the UKIM Act’s market access principles. For the union to thrive, we must respect devolved Administrations and their powers—but this Government will not abdicate their responsibility for the United Kingdom as a whole.

My Lords, since 2007 health spending in England has gone up by 25% in real terms. In Scotland it has gone up by 10.8%, because the Scottish Government have not spent the Barnett consequentials of health increases on health. At the same time, they are blaming Westminster for so-called cuts in health expenditure. How is it possible to have a constructive relationship with a Government who are so dishonest and are determined to destroy the United Kingdom?

My Lords, as a proud and passionate native of Scotland, my noble friend brings pertinent facts before your Lordships’ House. I cannot answer for the actions of the Scottish Government, but I say to them—and indeed to everybody—that now is the time not to stoke divisions but to focus on what unites the people of Scotland and all of us around the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, setting aside the anti-British obsession of the SNP, do the Government not recognise that post-Brexit legislation has left all the devolved Administrations concerned that the Government are taking powers back from them and are seeking to take United Kingdom decisions using English Ministers as the final buttress? Does he recognise that that approach is not acceptable and not consistent with his opening remarks?

No, my Lords. I do understand that there have been rhetoric and statements about this. I repeat what I said to the noble Baroness opposite: the Government are deeply committed to strengthening the union. Part of that, obviously, is showing full and appropriate respect to our partners in the devolved Administrations. I think that, when your Lordships come to see the outcome, it will be understood that the new intergovernment relations protocol and approaches will fully reflect that mutual respect.

Will my noble friend look very carefully at areas where co-operation and collaboration are perhaps not working as effectively as they might? On a ministerial call with regulators in Scotland—the Faculty of Advocates, of which I am a non-practising member, and the Law Society of Scotland—concern was expressed that regulations implementing the primary legislation of the Professional Qualifications Bill, once adopted, might be passed without consultation with either them or the devolved Administrations. Will my noble friend give the House an undertaking that no regulations will be passed without prior consultation and consent?

My Lords, I am not directly responsible for the professional qualifications legislation, so I am loath to give an incautious answer, but obviously I will refer my noble friend’s comments to those who are considering these matters.

My Lords, contrary to the Minister’s remarks, it sometimes seems that by their actions the Government are deliberately strengthening the case for independence in Scotland and Wales. Does he appreciate that Scotland is split 50/50 on the issue of independence, and that perhaps the only way to find common ground is to complete the unfinished business of devolution by starting discussions on how to build a federation of the regions and nations of the UK?

My Lords, there is a difference in philosophy, which is unfortunate, in that the United Kingdom Government, the party opposite—I believe—we ourselves and the other parties represented in this House believe in a United Kingdom. Sadly, the Administration in Scotland, now supported by the Greens, have a different view and wish to break up the United Kingdom. Despite that, this Government’s duty and responsibility are to govern in the interests of all the people of the United Kingdom, seeking the fullest co-operation and showing the greatest respect that we can. That will continue to guide us.

My Lords, we need much more clarity and agreement on crossings between the four nations. During the time of the pandemic, you would be wearing masks on the English side but you would be without masks on the Welsh side, so people crossing were uncertain what to do. If you took the railway train between Chester and Newport, you would be crossing into both England and Wales. It was complete chaos. I ask the Government at least to try to remove that uncertainty, while always respecting devolved power. Now is the time to sort this out: not when the next pandemic hits us but now, when we can do it—respecting of course the determination of the nations, in referendums in Scotland and Wales, to have more powers. Eventually, I imagine to myself—

Sorry. The question is this: eventually, the answer could be four separate nations co-operating in a federal system, each with equal status. What is the Government’s opinion of that?

My Lords, we seek co-operation between the elected authorities in the United Kingdom. That also involves co-operation with local authorities. But it is part of devolution that the decisions to which the noble Lord has referred are made by the devolved Administrations. That is the fact of the law.

My Lords, there were strong signals, which were to be welcomed, from the Prime Minister and Ministers earlier in the summer when the Prime Minister called a meeting with the First Ministers to discuss “build back better” and the economic recovery following the pandemic. That was followed by similar statements from the Chancellor, who I think on a visit to Scotland said that he was going to try to support an economic recovery for the whole of the United Kingdom and involve everybody in that approach. What have been the practical outcomes of those discussions, and will there be further discussions to ensure that, given the tax and economic powers that now exist at different levels of government in the United Kingdom, everybody is pointing in the same direction for economic recovery?

I thank the noble Lord, as always, for his constructive question. At the Covid recovery meeting in June, which the Prime Minister instigated, all present agreed to finalise the new system for inter- governmental relations. We are now exceedingly close to that—we are in a position to conclude the work—and I tell the House that the Prime Minister has written regarding another such meeting in October.

My Lords, I very much welcome and endorse the Minister’s strong commitment to the United Kingdom, and I wish him well in all his efforts to strengthen our United Kingdom. However, since the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland in January 2020, there have been a number of instances where the Government have infringed on the devolved settlement and taken measures that override the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in the 1998 Act. For the assistance of the House, can the Minister set out the circumstances and the criteria for the infringement of the Sewel convention?

My Lords, again I reiterate the importance of respect. The kind of authoritative statement that my noble friend asks for is not something that I am going to venture in five seconds at the Dispatch Box—but I undertake to write to him on the matter.

Does the Minister agree that, in working constructively with the devolved Administrations, Westminster always needs to adopt a collaborative rather than a confrontational approach; that that approach to working constructively should be based not solely on the right to choose but on the right to an informed choice; and that that approach should be placed at the centre of new information-sharing protocols and never protocols built solely on the rhetoric of muscular unionism?

Well, I do agree with that; indeed, it has been implicit and explicit in the answers that I have sought to give your Lordships. I believe profoundly that the peoples of these islands have benefited extraordinarily from centuries of co-operation within our United Kingdom, and I hope and pray that that will continue. That must go with mutual respect—and that goes both ways—between the centre and the devolved Administrations. I think that is the devout wish of the whole of your Lordships’ House.