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Prime Minister: Meeting with First Ministers

Volume 815: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the Prime Minister will next meet the First Ministers of the United Kingdom’s devolved Governments, and what they will discuss.

The Prime Minister met the First Ministers on Monday to discuss the next steps of Covid recovery and the upcoming COP 26 summit. He expects to meet them again early next year.

My Lords, next Wednesday the Chancellor will present his annual Budget to Parliament. I understand that that Budget was not on the agenda, despite some economic references in the items discussed on Monday at the meeting with the First Ministers. After 22 years of the devolution settlement, which has since expanded the tax-raising and tax-varying powers of the Scottish Government and others, surely it is time for Budgets to be prepared in the United Kingdom on a slightly different basis, with some consultation and engagement in advance with all levels of government, including the devolved Governments.

I know that the intergovernmental review is specifically looking at arrangements for the development of Budgets. I point out that there have been a number of meetings between the UK Government and the devolved Governments in the run-up to the spending review.

My Lords, DIT Ministers are refusing to engage with the devolved Governments on trade negotiations, other than on very specific devolved competences. However, major trade deals, especially those dealing with sectors such as agriculture, food processing, energy or manufacturing, can have a major impact on devolved territories, so will the Government undertake to involve the devolved Governments fully on any issues impacting on their economies in trade deals and not simply on areas of devolved competences?

My Lords, the model of international engagement is also something that the intergovernmental review is looking to iron out so that there is effective engagement. Engagement on international matters has now been embedded in the inter-ministerial group for trade and EU issues as well as in the inter-ministerial standing committee.

My Lords, in engagement with the devolved authorities, the Government must respect the devolution settlement and the devolved authorities need to recognise that we have a Government of the whole United Kingdom. Is it possible to do that with equal respect to both parties?

Absolutely, there needs to be equal respect. That is why there has been a major review of how we ensure effective working between the devolved Governments and the United Kingdom Government. It has taken some time to conclude.

Will my noble friend the Minister inform the House of what progress the intergovernmental relations review has made since the March progress update and why it has taken so long to conclude the review?

My noble friend is right that it is not a fast process, but we are now in a position to conclude. Developing a package that best reflects each devolved Government’s views can be the result only of detailed joint analysis by the UK Government and the devolved Governments.

My Lords, will the Minister undertake to remind the Prime Minister to remind in turn the First Minister of Scotland of the vital contribution to the Scottish economy of United Kingdom defence expenditure, in particular the submarine base at Faslane, the Type 26 frigates now being built on the Clyde and now the Type 31 frigates being built at Rosyth?

I will undertake to do that. Of course, the Prime Minister is now also the Minister for the Union, and I am sure that he, as well as my right honourable friend who is now the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, will use every opportunity to remind the First Minister of that important defence contribution.

During the Covid pandemic, the Welsh Labour Government at Cardiff Bay have received substantial additional funding—indeed, billions—through the Barnett formula and other funding. Does the Minister agree that, when they next meet, a discussion of the reluctance on the part of the Welsh Government to spend that money in support of the ailing Welsh national health system and of Welsh businesses would be very appropriate, as well as an additional discussion as to why they are reluctant to hold an inquiry into their performance in dealing with the pandemic in Wales?

My Lords, it is important to recognise that through the Barnett formula a considerable amount of money has been made available to all the devolved Governments—some £28.1 billion. We are happy to continue to engage in a productive way with the Welsh First Minister and others on how best to recover.

My Lords, when the Prime Minister next meets the First Ministers in the new year, I hope it will be a convivial and friendly gathering. I hope that all in the room will reflect on how they responded to Covid and to some of the backlogs in education and health, and that each part will find that they have done some things better and others worse. Could we encourage them to compare their experiences and learn from each other so that the whole of the United Kingdom will benefit from some of the divergences of the four units?

My Lords, that is absolutely an opportunity to learn. The pandemic will probably have been the most memorable event in my lifetime, as someone who was born well after the Second World War, and it is important that we learn the lessons from divergence and different approaches so that we are better prepared for the next time, should this ever happen again.

My Lords, I would like to extend the debate to the devolved entities in England. Earlier this year, PoliticsHome reported that some metro mayors are growing increasingly frustrated with the Government’s favouritism towards certain mayors by way of, for example, meetings with the Prime Minister or the Chancellor and access to officials. What steps have the Government taken to increase engagement with all metro mayors regardless of their party affiliation?

My Lords, I am certainly aware of a number of meetings that have taken place— I have had numerous meetings with the Mayor of Manchester and the Mayor of the West Midlands, and many with the Mayor of London. Of course, we recognise the importance of effective engagement. It is through effective engagement with our mayors that we can support each other so that we recover from this pandemic.

My Lords, one area for profitable discussion would be how we can ensure that all countries and regions of the United Kingdom can benefit from growing economic prosperity. As part of that discussion, would it not be useful to discuss how we can prevent Northern Ireland being placed at a severe competitive disadvantage compared with the other countries in the UK by the provisions relating to state aid in the Northern Ireland protocol, something that does not get much coverage but which is vital? Can we ensure that the Government’s proposals in their Command Paper in July are implemented as quickly as possible? That would help to redress this problem.

My Lords, the noble Lord is obviously more expert than me on the specifics, but it is important that the state aid rules apply fairly and equally across all our four nations.

My Lords, given the somewhat frayed cords that hold the nations of the United Kingdom together, are the Ministers of the devolved Governments satisfied that they have a fair voice in drawing up the agenda of these meetings? Are the issues that they want to discuss being discussed?

The noble and right reverend Lord should understand that there is a three-tiered form of engagement: there are portfolio-level meetings, cross-cutting issues and then the Prime Minister meeting with First Ministers and the Deputy First Minister. The sheer volume of meetings indicates that there are plenty of fora to ensure that we deal with the issues at the appropriate level of engagement, whether at the bottom tier or in meetings with the Prime Minister.

My Lords, I would like to suggest something for the agenda for the next meeting. Could the Minister ask the Prime Minister—nicely—to put on the agenda ways of ensuring that money allocated by the Treasury for devolved areas is spent properly on those areas, not improperly on reserved areas?

There is a clear political point there, but also a practical point. We must spend money for its intended purposes, which is why we have bodies such as the National Audit Office to ensure that taxpayers’ money is properly spent. We need to look into how we can have a similar regime for devolved Governments.