Skip to main content

Minister for Intergovernmental Relations

Volume 815: debated on Monday 18 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the Dunlop Review of Devolution, published on 24 March, influenced the creation of the post of Minister for Intergovernmental Relations.

The Minister for Intergovernmental Relations is committed to strengthening the union, as he was when he was previously responsible for constitutional integrity, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office. My noble friend Lord Dunlop’s review considered ways to configure and improve the structures of government in order to strengthen the union, and it aligns with government thinking in this regard.

In its report, the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee noted that

“relations between the four administrations of the UK are in a particularly poor state, and that UK intergovernmental relations need to be reset.”

Does the Minister accept that it undermines the devolution settlements when this 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 over 20 years? Will the new ministerial post address these problematic issues?

My Lords, the Government have made clear that they intend to work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that funding is used to best effect and supports citizens across the UK. Discussions relating to specific schemes using the financial assistance power could take place in the relevant departmental interministerial group at the outset of the review of intergovernmental relations. There has been a very clear statement that the devolved Administrations will be part of the governance structures of relevant funds.

My Lords, given the comparatively minor disparities in the way that the pandemic has been tackled by Westminster and the devolved Governments, are the Government satisfied that they can prove to the eventual public inquiry that they have done everything to try to establish common policies? Will the Government now announce regular dates for joint ministerial meetings with the devolved Governments? When will the Prime Minister spare the time to chair one of those meetings?

My Lords, I do not recognise the lack of engagement with the devolved Administrations. In fact, as we speak, the Prime Minister is in a meeting with First Ministers, and there have been many hundreds of meetings, across Whitehall, with the devolved Administrations—well over 300. The Secretary of State who has responsibility for constitutional matters meets them monthly. That is a framework that is currently working to ensure that the devolved Administrations are listened to very carefully.

My Lords, a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Wales said that he had to “bite his tongue” when asked about matters relating to the devolved Government in Wales. Subsequently, he went on to criticise some of the health policies of the Welsh Government. On the need for mutual respect between the various Governments of this country, could the Minister tell the House the correct approach that Ministers should take to these devolved matters? Does it always involve biting tongues?

My Lords, clearly, there needs to be constructive engagement on devolved matters, and I believe that there is. In fact, the commitment to Wales is really quite considerable: there has been £352 billion of support for the whole of the UK, and, in Wales, this included protecting more than 460,000 jobs through the furlough scheme. We continue to recognise the need to work closely with all our devolved Administrations.

It is important that the Government have appointed a Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. Could my noble friend say how the Minister is engaging with the devolved Administrations and supporting effective intergovernmental working across the United Kingdom?

My Lords, my noble friend is right that there needs to be effective intergovernmental working. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is committed to continuing to work effectively with the devolved Administrations and supporting effective engagement across government. My right honourable friend will be writing to the devolved Administrations regarding the arrangements following on from the intergovernmental relations review and the formalised structures for engagement, as part of that.

My Lords, given our rather asymmetric constitutional arrangements, it is easy to forget that intergovernmental relations matter to Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Therefore, does the Minister agree that, if we want fair handling of the four components, it is important that we gather and analyse data in all of them in a way which allows us to make proper and in-time comparisons?

My Lords, I accept that it is important that all government decisions should be based on sound analysis and data, which I am sure will be the case as we look to work closely with the devolved Administrations to spend money that was previously as a result of our membership of the European Union.

My Lords, I hope that we can all agree that good intergovernmental relations are based on strong mutual respect, so will the Government please stop referring to the devolved Governments as devolved Administrations and call them Governments, which they clearly are?

My Lords, there is no sign of disrespect when we call a Government a devolved Administration, but I am happy to call them devolved Governments in future if that is seen as more appropriate.

My Lords, findings of the IPPR show that there are huge differences in regional economic performance and prosperity in the UK and that this is down largely to overcentralised and inflexible governance. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will devolve powers to local decision-makers as a key part of the levelling-up agenda and not allow this to be operated by the dead hand of Whitehall from London?

My Lords, the Government remain committed to devolution. On the levelling-up agenda and fund, it is quite clear that, where that money is spent in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we will have effective engagement and work closely with stakeholders to build on existing spending, using the economies of scale that we can achieve through expenditure at the United Kingdom level.

Can the Minister please summarise what, if any, are the important differences between the Dunlop review’s recommendation for a new Cabinet post, a Secretary of State for intergovernmental and constitutional affairs, and the ministerial post created by the Government of Minister for Intergovernmental Relations?

I thank my noble friend for wanting that clarity. Day-to-day responsibility for constitutional integrity falls to the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. Individual Secretaries of State also have a critical role in representing the distinctive voices and interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in Whitehall and the Cabinet; in representing the UK Government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and in co-ordinating the UK Government’s work with the devolved Governments to deliver for all citizens of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there will be a strong UK union only if each of our constituent nations, regions and Governments has a relationship of equals, which, regrettably, has not been the case under this Government? Their high-handed arrogance over the internal market Act and the shared prosperity fund are just two examples. Will the Minister guarantee parity of esteem in the Joint Ministerial Committee, through shared chairing and agenda setting, an impartial secretariat and improved dispute avoidance and resolution?

My Lords, I do not recognise that characterisation; there is huge esteem for the devolved Governments. We need to recognise that our United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen, and we continue to build on its strengths.

My Lords, last Thursday we welcomed Her Majesty the Queen to the Senedd, and we all rejoiced in the work that the devolved Senedd was doing—but then we have the appointment of this intergovernmental Minister. I thought that there might be some hope there, but he is already Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Is this not just something that is a fantasy for this Government?

The noble Lord is right that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has a number of responsibilities, but he takes his ministerial responsibilities with regard to the union extremely seriously, with monthly meetings with all the devolved Governments and First Ministers. I also remind the noble Lord that the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Union and, at this moment, he is speaking to First Ministers. So that engagement is real, and we will continue to work very closely with all the devolved Governments.

My Lords, intergovernmental relations are a two-way street. Is the Minister aware that, in Scotland, the devolved Government are spending money on areas that are not devolved, including millions of pounds on overseas offices? Why are the UK Government afraid to bring them into line?

I thank the noble Lord for raising this issue. It is quite clear that you need to have the competence to spend taxpayers’ money. The best way in which to rein them in is, of course, to win at the ballot box.