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Prime Minister: Meetings with First Ministers of the Devolved Governments

Volume 817: debated on Monday 10 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the Prime Minister last met the First Ministers of the devolved governments, and what matters were discussed at those meetings.

My Lords, the Prime Minister held bilateral calls with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on 17 December. They discussed the collective response to omicron, including any financial support needed for additional measures, and confirmed plans for further engagement. The UK Government and the devolved Governments continue to work together during this pandemic to save lives and livelihoods across the UK.

My Lords, I am sure that I speak for many Members of your Lordships’ House when I say that we are disappointed that the four Governments of the United Kingdom continue to exhibit such difference in policy and execution of policy in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. That said, can we have a guarantee from the Government that there will be proper co-ordination between the four Governments in relation to any post-Covid inquiries, allowing for the economic, social and health impacts of the policies of these four Governments during the Covid pandemic to be analysed for their impact, including, for example, their impact on teenage suicides, which are not publicised uniformly across all four Governments and which should certainly be part of the overall assessment of impact afterwards?

Certainly the tragedies of teenage suicides affect the whole of the UK. The new intergovernment review structure is set up to allow closer co-operation and in-depth discussions between the devolved Governments on strategies to tackle matters such as this very important point that the noble Lord has raised. Engagement going forward into 2022 can be at three levels: portfolio engagement at official level; interministerial standing committee level; and, of course, higher up at the heads of devolved Government council level.

My Lords, given the recent new customs regulations that came into force for goods moving from the UK to the EU on 1 January, can my noble friend give the House an update on recent developments on framework agreements between the four nations of the UK?

I can say that, in terms of Northern Ireland, which is the gist of the question, there are some significant issues to resolve and people and businesses in Northern Ireland are facing these daily. The Foreign Secretary, who has taken over from my noble friend Lord Frost, is committed to finding a resolution and proceeding talks with renewed urgency on matters such as those that my noble friend has raised.

My Lords, given that the difference in policy applications across the nations has not led to much difference in outcomes, is not the reality that we need a more co-operative approach across the UK? The Prime Minister said that devolution was a disaster. Does he not have to work twice as hard now to show that it can be a constructive and co-operative partnership and that the devolved Administrations are valued as part of the team?

Yes, indeed. The review, which is due to be published shortly, sets out a fit-for-purpose system that allows for meaningful and effective engagement between the UK Government and the devolved Governments. As I said earlier, this was achieved by discussions occurring at the portfolio level, where possible, and within the particular groups. The package also contains commitments to transparency and a robust dispute resolution mechanism founded on the principle of dispute avoidance.

My Lords, since science knows no frontiers—and as New Year’s Eve showed, our citizens travelled between the countries of the UK—what efforts has Westminster made to agree common policies with the devolved Governments for dealing with the pandemic?

As the noble and learned Lord will know, there are constant meetings regarding the pandemic with the Chief Medical Officers, but the Prime Minister himself is Minister for the Union and he met the First Ministers three times last year—there were meetings in June and October and bilateral calls in December. But it is more than this: last year there were more than 350 meetings at ministerial level. Co-operation is getting better and will certainly improve in 2022 after all the discussions on the IGR.

My Lords, is not the fact of the matter that the Prime Minister made the right judgment and the right call, and in England people were able to celebrate new year? In Scotland, for the first time ever, hogmanay celebrations were prevented, resulting in people having to go south of the border. It is a bit rich to blame the United Kingdom Government for the mistakes of the Scottish Parliament.

I take my noble friend’s point, but of course, as the House will know, it is up to the devolved Governments to make decisions themselves, based on the back of discussions that continue to take place between the four Governments.

My Lords, Crisis has found that the economic aftermath of the pandemic risks exacerbating levels of homelessness right across the UK, but it has also praised the work of the Welsh Government and their measures to alleviate the immediate increase. Have the Government met with the Welsh Government to discuss best practice for reducing homelessness, and, if not, will he press them to do so?

I certainly cannot say that they have talked specifically about homelessness, but, as a result of the improved co-operation and the increased number of meetings between the Governments, all matters of importance will be discussed during the rollout of the IGR during 2022.

My Lords, do the Minister and his colleagues recognise the impact on citizens in Yorkshire, the north-west and the north-east of England of the constant discussion of what is happening in London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and the neglect of what is happening in the other parts of England? Will Ministers take into account the regional dimension of the dominant part of the United Kingdom in the White Paper on levelling up, or will they continue to insist on imposing governors on counties and mayors on other regions?

Levelling up all corners of the UK is at the heart of this Government’s agenda, and the White Paper, to be published early this year, will set out an ambitious vision to improve living standards, increase opportunity and grow the private sector in all parts of the UK. This will take account of the noble Lord’s question on Yorkshire.

My Lords, I am happy that William Wallace got in before me on this particular question. There are issues beyond the pandemic that need to be discussed between the four Governments. Is the Minister aware that there have been terrible cancellations of ferries to the islands of Scotland? Indeed, the other week 13 of the 14 Arran ferries were cancelled in one day. In the meantime, the ferries that the Scottish Government commissioned, which were supposed to be ready two years ago, are now rusting in the Ferguson yard on the Clyde. Will the UK Government put this on the agenda of the next meeting and consider how they can give some assistance to the failing Scottish Government in relation to ferries to the Western Isles?

This perhaps reflects the tone of the question from my noble friend Lord Forsyth. I have no idea whether ferries have been discussed, but again, this is just the sort of matter that could be discussed, given the greater co-operation that will take place as a result of the discussions over the last two to three years with the devolved nations. I will certainly take back the point made by the noble Lord.

My Lords, co-operation is good, as are accountability and dispute resolution. But devolution began as a process. Do the Government agree with that, and do they have any proposals to put before the Ministers of the devolved Administrations about further elements of devolution?

The noble Lord is right to say that this has been an evolving process. There are no plans to take it further. Obviously, the whole process of devolution and the matters arising from it, and the links and co-operation between the four devolved nations, will continue to be discussed. The idea with the IGR is that all four will be treated equally, there will be transparency, and there will be reviews.

Following up on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, do the Government agree with the previous Labour Government, who said that devolution for Scotland would strengthen the union?

I can only repeat that devolution for Scotland has, of course, been rolled out in the same way as devolution for Northern Ireland and Wales. We believe that it works well, but, as I said earlier, we continue to monitor it and to make sure that the effective co-operation and links between the four nations continue as they are.

My Lords, I invited the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—oh, I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, wants to speak. You are unaffiliated, are you not, so I shall let you go.

Thank you so much. What a gallant gentleman.

I am quite curious about the dynamics of these meetings, and I wonder whether Westminster goes in with any sort of listening attitude. The Scottish Government are now much greener than the Westminster Government, and I suggest that Westminster could learn a lot.

I am sure that the new Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, my right honourable friend Michael Gove, will have taken this on board. He, of course, is the one tasked with taking forward the main links with the four devolved Governments. As the noble Baroness will be aware, that has been set up recently—and he is very much up and running.