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Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Welsh Government about the independent commission set up by that Government to look at options for the future constitution of Wales.

My Lords, the UK Government have not yet had any discussions with the Welsh Government regarding the independent constitutional commission; nor were we informed of its proposed structural content. But we were aware that this was a manifesto commitment. In subsequent written communication with the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, the First Minister of Wales stated that he would encourage the commission to contact the UK Government, and we hope to be able to give evidence.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while the constitution is a matter reserved to this Parliament, it is helpful that the Welsh Government have set up this independent commission to make recommendations? However, if the governance of Wales, the governance of Scotland and the governance of Northern Ireland are considered in isolation, there is an increased risk of the break-up of the United Kingdom. So will the UK Government now consider some form of review of the governance of the whole of the United Kingdom, including England, in a systematic and coherent way, so that we can ensure the continued prosperity and unity of this United Kingdom?

As always, the noble Lord makes a very compelling case. The UK Government are committed to protecting and promoting the combined strengths of our union, building on hundreds of years of partnership and shared history. This Parliament remains in charge of the balance between reserved and devolved competences, and we will continue to make sure that our constitutional arrangements remain fit for purpose and enable our institutions to work effectively together to deliver for citizens in every part of the UK. We have no plans for a UK-wide constitutional convention.

Will my noble friend the Minister tell the House how the UK Government assess the current state of relations with the Welsh Government?

As a result of Covid, we have engagement at all levels of government, both at ministerial and official levels. Certainly, inter-ministerial relations between Michael Gove and the First Minister continue on a weekly basis. We will be happy to take part in this commission and we will continue to make the case for the union. The UK Government remain focused on supporting Wales’s recovery from the pandemic and we will continue to work on this.

What engagement has there been with the Welsh Government on the distribution of what are known as levelling-up funds, in the light of assurances and statements made by the Minister during the ping-pong debate on 14 December, when we discussed an amendment designed to ensure agreement between the two Governments on the use of the funds to avoid the risk, which the House identified, of pork-barrel politics?

We have indeed engaged with the Welsh Government on the new local growth funds. A lot of the engagement has been between MPs and their local authorities—not always of the same political hue. We have sought advice on projects at the shortlisting stage, including on deliverability and alignment with existing provisions, and we welcome the engagement to date. We look forward to further engagement in future rounds. A number of local authorities and projects have been pulled back to access the next round of applications, which will start in the spring.

The independent chair of the commission told the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the committee’s recent visit to Wales that the notion of parliamentary sovereignty has not kept pace with the reality of devolution. Does the Minister recognise her Government’s policy of repeatedly encroaching on devolved areas, failing to respect the Sewel convention and short-changing the people of Wales when it comes to post-Brexit funds? I welcome the Government’s commitment to engage constructively with the independent commission. Will the Minister welcome the experienced and diverse range of commissioners announced yesterday by the Welsh Government?

I do welcome the composition of the new commission. We respect and are fully committed to the Sewel convention and we work very hard to secure the support of the devolved Administrations for all legislative consent Motions. One of the difficulties when devolution was planned was that the Governments of Wales, Scotland and England were all of the same political party. We are working together to acknowledge our past difficulties and to get over the challenges that all the Brexit legislation has brought to us. I can assure the noble Baroness that engagement at all levels is still actively continuing.

My Lords, I welcome the Welsh Government’s establishment of the commission and the further announcement yesterday of the names of those appointed as commissioners. I was delighted to learn that they included the former Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams.

Our democracy in Wales continues to evolve and the need for this commission has never been clearer. But on its own this commission will not solve the UK’s constitutional problems, and it will not save the union. How does the Minister envisage that the remainder of the UK could contribute to this process?

Of course, it is for the commission itself to decide how to engage and conduct its inquiry, and whom to invite to participate in the process. As I have said, the UK Government will welcome the opportunity to provide evidence and to continue to make the case for the union. We shall continue to make sure that constitutional arrangements remain fit for purpose and enable our institutions to work effectively together to deliver for all citizens in all parts of the UK.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Professor McAllister, who along with Rowan Williams is leading this commission, has made it clear that it will be receptive to any evidence in support of independence for Wales. If, in the light of that, the Welsh Government were to propose a referendum on independence, would the UK Government accept the result of that referendum?

Of course, I could make the point that Professor Laura McAllister has stood twice as a Plaid Cymru candidate, so I am not surprised that her comments in the Senedd were very different from those of the First Minister, who said that this would not be a consideration of the commission. While we are, of course, interested in its work, it would not be right for us to pre-empt any possible recommendations. I remind the noble Lord that, in a St David’s Day poll this year, 80% of respondents expressed their support for the union.

My Lords, surely we should acknowledge that the bold experiment of establishing a devolved system in a unitary state is not final. Therefore, what is the vision of the Government as they set about giving evidence to the commission? Will they go beyond the status quo?

That is a question for later on in the process. I am delighted to take the question back to the department for a steer on what its response will be, but I reiterate that we are keen on pointing out all the advantages that Wales has had through the union, particularly during the Covid pandemic, with help for the Nightingale courts and the help of the Army for the ambulancemen. Wales has had a lot of tangible benefits, not least a huge increase in the amount of money given to it in the spending review—£18 billion, as opposed to £16.9 billion.

My Lords, as was already mentioned, the constitution is a reserved matter and, as such, the findings of this commission will be of little value in a UK context. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, in addition to the multi-millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money wasted on an airport purchase, to the axed M4 Newport relief road motorway project, which has cost Welsh taxpayers £140 million to date, and to the worst A&E record in the UK—I could go on—this commission is yet another futile spend, whose only purpose is to pander to the nationalist party for support? That is obvious from the choice of co-chair of the committee, who, as already has been mentioned, stood twice for parliamentary election for Plaid Cymru.

My noble friend makes some good points. We do not know how much money has been spent on this commission, but it is a large commission and one can only assume that it has been a priority for the Welsh Government—I am not sure that the people of Wales have the same priority. I note that, in a recent poll in WalesOnline, in October—just before the spending review—of the top 10 concerns of the Welsh people, nine were in devolved areas. The last one was that the UK Government were not giving enough money to Wales—and I think we convincingly negated that argument in the spending review. However, one of the concerns was on infrastructure, and roads in particular. It is still disappointing that the Welsh Government will not allow the M4 relief road around Newport, which would unblock a lot of the problems in south Wales.

I would like to press the Minister on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. I am sure that she would agree that the relationship between the four nations of the United Kingdom and the London Government is not fixed and final—in recent years, there has been an indication of unease about that. Does she agree that this is a real opportunity for the Government to contribute to this commission, not just on a quick, politically orientated, ad hoc basis that has been cobbled together but with some serious, long-term thinking?

There is a wonderful expression about Wales: it is a land of commissions, conventions and panels. Obviously, we will contribute seriously to this review, if asked to do so, but I recall from the Dunlop review that no intergovernmental review machinery is capable of resolving fundamentally different political objectives. But it is realistic to expect serviceable and resilient relationships, and that is what we should all be striving to achieve.