Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise once again the issue of the integrity of the union of the United Kingdom and its resilience against increasing stresses. I am afraid I cannot emulate the wonderful brevity of my noble friend Lord Morse in introducing the first debate this morning, but I do not intend to take up the whole of the very generous allocation of time I have been given. I am very sorry that this is to be the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and I look forward very much to hearing what he has to say during the debate.
I was fortunate to secure a debate on the same subject in January 2019. The union was then faced with a number of uncertainties—principally, perhaps, the effects of Brexit. As your Lordships’ European Union Committee said at the time,
“the European Union has been, in effect, part of the glue holding the United Kingdom together”.
More than three years later, those uncertainties remain, and in some respects they have become more threatening. Brexit is done, we are told. I have no wish at all to return to those damaging and divisive times in our history. We have to make the best of things but the present situation is, to say the least, untidy.
A brief survey will suffice. There is the extraordinary behaviour of the Government over the Northern Ireland protocol, which they negotiated and which the Prime Minister trumpeted with such enthusiasm. Now the Government wish to take powers to renounce significant parts of the protocol. This is against the background of Sinn Féin becoming for the first time the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the movement towards a border poll that might, in due course, thereby come closer. In the meantime, there is no functioning Executive, and the clock is ticking on the 24-week deadline for the Secretary of State to appoint a date for new Assembly elections.
In Scotland, the devolved Administration’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution has said that a second independence referendum is planned for October 2023. Whether that is possible in any form which would be legally binding without a Section 30 order is yet to be determined. That seems unlikely, but the prospect of an advisory referendum is one which Mrs Sturgeon will want to keep constantly in the public eye, if only as a distraction from her Administration’s less than perfect delivery of public services. The UK Government have set their face against a second referendum, which is a conflict that Holyrood will try to use to its advantage. The opinion polls seem to be a little less favourable to independence than they were, but the hazard remains.
In Wales, the Welsh Government have established the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales to consider and develop durable options for fundamental reform of the constitutional structures of the UK and to strengthen Welsh democracy. The co-chair of the commission, Laura McAllister, has said that the commission
“has a licence to be radical”
and that it will
“explore options for governing Wales as a distinct nation within the UK”,
and also, significantly,
“the options for a future for Wales outside the Union.”
The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who is unable to be in his place this afternoon, asked a Question for Short Debate in Grand Committee on 9 June on the possibility of a new constitutional relationship for the four parts of the United Kingdom. He listed reasons why Wales was becoming less in sympathy with the current constitutional settlement, including the ignoring of recommendations such as those of the Silk commission for devolved police powers and those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for changes in the legal framework; he also alluded to a perceived unfairness in the deployment of structural and social funds. Of course, the noble Lord spoke from his Plaid Cymru point of view, but as a Welshman by birth and title, I can appreciate the force of those points and their unhelpful bearing on the cohesion of the United Kingdom.
In that debate Lord Wigley proposed a confederal approach in which the three nations and the Province agree to pool their sovereignty for certain purposes. This has something in common with the approach of the Constitution Reform Group, convened and chaired by the Marquess of Salisbury, a former distinguished Member and Leader of your Lordships’ House. The group produced the Act of Union Bill, an earlier version of which I introduced in the previous Parliament, and an updated version of which was published last year. This seeks to replace the present top-down method of devolution with an approach in which the constituent parts of the United Kingdom would decide which powers they wished to pool for greater solidarity and effectiveness. This is to suggest not a new written constitution but a way of dealing with what I describe as the imperial condescension of Whitehall towards the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
For as long as the concept has existed, doing devolution has been difficult, requiring as it does the accommodation of ancient national pride and aspiration within structures of robust and effective co-operation. Some of the problems were set out with great clarity by your Lordships’ Constitution Committee in its excellent report Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century, which is tagged on the Order Paper for this debate.
Incidentally, if I may digress just for a moment, I noted that the committee depended for its definition of parliamentary sovereignty—strictly, legislative sovereignty—upon the words of AV Dicey, even though his definition was almost the same as that of my learned predecessor Thomas Erskine May in the first edition of his Parliamentary Practice in 1844, when Professor Dicey, although no doubt precocious, was only nine years old.
The inherent difficulties of devolution have been exacerbated by the way in which devolution has been done, and this reflects our approach to constitutional change. Administrations of both colours have adopted a short-term, patchwork approach, in which changes are made with inadequate forethought and preparation, and, more especially, without consideration of wider effects and often, later, with buyer’s remorse. So it is with relationships between the different parts of the United Kingdom. A theme of the Constitution Committee’s report might be summarised as “mutual respect”; in other words, an end to the imperial condescension in which Whitehall knows best and decides how any cake is to be cut.
As to the future, there are a few—a very few—reasons for restrained optimism. It is possible that improved intergovernmental relations, drawing on the excellent work of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, might be a factor, but that depends crucially on political will, and, as the Constitution Committee says,
“achieving shared objectives, rather than simply managing—or taking opportunities to accentuate … differences.”
Interparliamentary co-operation, in which our own Lord Speaker has taken a leading role, has a part to play. It may not have executive power, but it can bring powerful influences to bear on those who do, and if it can improve mutual understanding and make differing approaches compatible, it will be very well worthwhile.
However, what is needed above all from the Government is steadfast, clear direction and genuinely co-operative working in a constitutionally stable environment. That is exactly what we do not have, and it seems that we have precious little hope of it. The last two and a half years have been desperately difficult in so many ways, and the economic and cost of living crisis seems likely to be with us for some time. But it is precisely in such circumstances that we look to government for calm proportionality and fixity of purpose.
Instead, we have government by announcement; frequent policy U-turns, sometimes within the span of a single day; constant shoot-from-the-hip legislation, with sweeping powers given to Ministers for often unspecified purposes; shredded standards of conduct, as was clear from the earlier debate; an unlawful Prorogation; the taking of powers to override international law and solemnly concluded international agreements; and wild and ignorant suggestions, such as your Lordships deploying to York, which was roundly and rightly condemned by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and others who spoke in his debate last week.
At the same time, our fears are meant to be assuaged by news such as the return of imperial measures—perhaps to go with the imperial condescension I mentioned a moment ago. Incidentally, I should tell noble Lords that I have been drinking excellent Herefordshire cider in imperial pints for very many years, EU or no EU.
If any theme can be made out in this maelstrom, it is one of greater centralisation and indeed presidentialism—although the fact that the Prime Minister is also Minister for the Union may strike your Lordships as one of those things which are beyond parody.
Thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, we may have had a sneak preview of the Minister’s reply to this debate, as he spoke on this subject on 9 June. I hope that it will not be exactly the same, tempting as that may be, because in its centenary year and in its present form, much more has to be done to preserve the union and all that it can deliver for the citizens of this United Kingdom. That is a task of which the Government have to show themselves not only worthy but capable. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in this debate. It is an important debate, and one that takes place from time to time because it is right we should look at the stresses and strains that exist within our constitution and within the different parts of the United Kingdom.
I join the noble Lord in looking forward to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and his valedictory few words; no doubt that will entertain all of us, and I am very keen to hear it.
We have had nearly 25 years of devolution—enough time for us to get used to it and for it bed down with our constitutional arrangements. But as the noble Lord has just pointed out, we have not done so. The stresses and strains are only too visible and too complicated, and it is clear that it will take considerably more time for them to bed down into a workable proposition.
The noble Lord mentioned his Act of Union Bill, which I regard as a good draft that we can all spend a great deal of time discussing. It is something that Governments should take seriously, because it points to a different intellectual approach to the governance of the country, rather than the one we have now. However, it is extremely hard to pursue that kind of debate politically when, in Scotland at any rate, we have a political party in power which is trying to tear up the United Kingdom as we speak and has so recently pledged itself to having a referendum in the next 12 months.
I will concentrate on Scotland, because I know and understand Scotland better than other parts of the United Kingdom, but some of what I will say has a read-across to the other parts. I will start with the need for co-operation, flagged up very much in the title of the Select Committee’s report. Co-operation seems to me fundamental to the workings of the British constitution, more so than mutual self-respect, which it goes without saying is important.
On co-operation—talking to each other and not doing things deliberately to undermine each other—I will give a very simple and personal example. As we overcame Covid through the use of vaccines, I went to my local GP and received two vaccines, several months apart. I received a certificate in the shape of a letter and then, miraculously, an app appeared on my phone. That was all very well and is an experience shared by most Peers. When it came to the third vaccination, the booster, I was spending a bit more time in London. I walked past a walk-in centre and, seeing no queue, I had it done quickly here. I explained that I was from Scotland and had a Scottish app, and they said, “That shouldn’t be a problem. I’m sure they’re all talking to each other.” No, they were not. There was no hint of co-operation at all and it took another two and a half months to get my Scottish app to recognise that I had already been boosted in England.
Translated many thousands of times, this all undermines the union we are talking about in very practical ways that are very visible to people in Scotland. The census was done differently in Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom—how utterly daft. The whole point of a census is that it is all done together, yet in Scotland we decided to do it rather differently and have been unable to achieve the kind of results achieved in the rest of the United Kingdom. The price of non-cooperation is unnecessary, expensive and bureaucratic processes, letting down people and affecting how they live. People are crying out for co-operation and that is what we should champion as much as possible.
People such as me who opposed devolution did so because we feared that there would be centralisation in Scotland. I am afraid to say that that is exactly what has happened. Local authorities have had their powers taken away to Edinburgh and the central belt dominates. None of this has done much good for the people of Scotland. Other parts of the United Kingdom can perhaps recognise what has happened.
I should say something about the SNP at this point. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. I have said in the past and say so again today that it would be good for us to have a member of the SNP here. I know the SNP generally have a view that they should not send people here, but I wonder if it is not time for our Prime Minister to seek to do that. It is a voice that we do not hear in the House, but one that we really should have.
I therefore very much welcome the steps taken by the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland to try to fund local authority projects directly, looking at special instances where central money can be spent more wisely, so that devolution would mean real devolution down to local institutions.
There is another outstanding issue, that of tertiary education. If you are a Scottish student, it is very hard to be educated anywhere but in a Scottish university because of the way the funding works. In other words, Scottish students are excluded from the rest of the United Kingdom. This is not a sensible way of going forward. I do not offer a solution to that today, but central government should look at ways for students throughout the United Kingdom to be dealt with fairly.
My time is up. I very much hope that this debate will be taken seriously by the Government and that they will look at ways to strengthen the union.
My Lords, I welcome the debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing it. It is very timely, because it enables us to step back from the day-to-day business of Parliament and government and take a view on what may be happening and what may be going wrong. I agree with him, and it was said also by the previous speaker, that the stresses and strains are, if anything, getting worse. I congratulate the noble Lord on the way in which he introduced the debate. I know that there are many distinguished speakers still to come. I wish the right reverend Prelate all the very best in his valedictory speech and I hope he has enjoyed the time that he has had in this House.
About 30 years ago, a historian called Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued, as Members will know, that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies was largely at an end and the world was settling on liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, like reports of Mark Twain’s death, this was very premature, and the debate today takes place against a backdrop of global tensions between democratic and autocratic states, and it is by no means certain how things will play out. I mention that because I have the same feeling about the future of the United Kingdom. I am not at all clear yet how it will turn out.
I welcome the report by the Select Committee and congratulate its chair, members and staff on producing it, because it is a very important source as background for this debate.
Nations are capable of self-harm. I do not want to be too provocative, but it may be that in the future people will come to look back on the referendum of 2016 in that light. In the context of today’s debate, it strikes me as interesting that this is a Government and a Prime Minister who say that they got Brexit done, but I am not at all clear that that is the case. It is somewhat ironic that the party whose official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party should be presiding over the stresses and strains already identified by the two previous speakers and which, as I have said, are getting worse.
There are other aspects too. I want to mention just one. Every day, I submit a Question in the hope that I will be selected, and each day I fail. I will never be selected for the England cricket team on the basis of my batting average. The Question that I have been submitting is about the future of Horizon Europe and the extent to which our scientific community can co-operate internationally, which is at risk at the moment, as Members may know. I worry that if we are excluded, the shared scientific venture that helps bind the union together will also be at risk and may disappear—that is just one element of what I might call the collateral damage of current government policy. Of course, we know that the Government’s proposed Northern Ireland legislation to deal with the Northern Ireland protocol, which to some extent is unsolvable, contributes to these tensions.
To take Northern Ireland for a moment, the stresses on the union caused by the unresolved Northern Ireland protocol are plain to see. Only this week in this House, we had a debate about access to medical services for women in Northern Ireland. What was interesting about that debate was that a lot of Members—including those who supported the amendment to the Motion—argued that devolution was not being allowed to work properly and that the Government were imposing their view. That was the tension. I also looked into the Grand Committee yesterday to catch a glimpse of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill being discussed. I heard more than one noble Lord regret the fact that it was not the Northern Ireland Executive who were discussing the Bill.
I can understand that point of view, but we all know why, despite the recent elections, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not yet even been able to elect a Speaker and get itself established as a working Assembly. The apparently intractable issues of the Northern Ireland protocol—which, in fairness, were foreseen when John Major and Tony Blair went together to Northern Ireland in 2016 to warn against the possible difficulties of a certain outcome—are still with us. I do not yet claim to know how things will turn out, but the House will be aware of the possibility that, over time, the views of the people in Northern Ireland might change so that, one day, unification with the Republic may seem preferable to a problematic life within the UK. We will have to see.
To take Scotland, which has already been mentioned, the stresses put on the union by the outcome of the referendum are very clear. We know that Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and the Scottish National Party has been able to use that result ever since as the single biggest reason why Scotland should have another independence referendum and vote to secede from the UK. We know that the current Government have stated that they have no intention of allowing indyref2 but I do not know how much longer their position can be sustained, and it may go ahead anyway in one form or another. If there is another referendum, it would be good to have a really honest debate about the realities of the choice.
As for Wales, the history is different. I have often been to the Senedd myself and I think it has established its own method of devolution, which was emphasised by the Covid experience that we all lived through. The leader of the Welsh Assembly emerged as a figure who had perhaps not previously been appreciated. References have been made to the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, and we will wait to see what the outcome of that is.
In the short time I have left, I am not sure that I can suggest any long-term solutions, although I find myself agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, that imperial condescension by the centre is unlikely ever to be the solution to anything. Our constitution has of course grown in a very different way from that of other countries—such as when a politically motivated group of people gathered together in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a new constitution. Ours is strengthened by its flexibility, but one problem—I must finish now—is that the form of devolution that we have is what you might call asymmetric.
I end by saying that my fear for the long-term future of the UK is partly about the UK’s standing in the world. If we ever did break apart, our position would be for ever and fatally weakened, as indeed would our self-esteem. In those circumstances, if we were to break up as a country, could we imagine retaining a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations? I do not think so.
I do not think that history has ended. We still have our future in our hands, but this Government have to take the future of the union a lot more seriously than they are doing now. The Prime Minister in particular needs to live up to the responsibilities that he has.
My Lords, with the evolution of the three devolved Governments, the United Kingdom has become a very unbalanced and insecure centralised country. I mention in passing that the question of whether the UK includes the Crown dependencies is left deliberately ambiguous. The Council of the Isles was set up with representation from the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. The Procurement Bill with which we are currently dealing contains a clause that says that UK suppliers include suppliers from the Crown dependencies. However, I recall very well that the last commission on the constitution, in the 1970s, made it clear that the Crown dependencies are not part of the United Kingdom. I will leave that aside for this debate, although we will no doubt continue to address this, with all of the intricacies of tax avoidance that are involved.
The stresses upon the union are clearly growing, but I will talk mainly about the stresses being caused within England. In passing, I say that I am conscious that not all Conservatives below the leadership are still unionists: some English nationalists—the Ukippers of the Conservative Party—would be quite happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland go, although they have not really thought about Wales. They think that it would save on tax transfers, but it would leave a very discontented north of England dominated by southern England and suffering as a result. That is not an impossible prospect, and we need to be very carefully aware of it.
Mention has been made of the Whitehall mindset, but it is also the ministerial mindset and what one has to call the Diceyan mindset—namely, that Parliament only temporarily devolves powers and may take them back whenever it feels like it. That is clearly not compatible with the continuation of the union. I keep reminding Ministers that Dicey wrote his doctrine on the constitution at the same time that he was writing violent pamphlets against any devolution to Ireland, and this clearly biased and influenced the way he wrote about UK sovereignty.
England has the most centralised democracy in the developed world. What is more, successive Governments muck about with local and regional structures. The Constitution Committee’s report on a stronger union says:
“we believe continued and frequent restructuring will risk undermining Whitehall’s capacity to manage a fundamental part of the United Kingdom’s governance arrangements.”
The latest example that I am aware of is the enforced dislocation of the governance of North Yorkshire by the abolition of district councils and the imposition of a single council, which means that some councillors will have to spend over two hours driving from the ward that they represent to the basic unit of local government to which they will now belong. I note that district councils still exist in Surrey, and I hope that they are about to be abolished in the same way; if the Government believe in single-tier local government, they have to impose it everywhere.
This change was made in the face of all but one of the 19 councils in Yorkshire saying clearly that they preferred an overall Yorkshire structure which would represent the clear identity of the region and its 5 million people—twice as many as in two of the three devolved Assemblies. This was overruled by the Government, with the imposition of metro mayors—some even wish to impose a metro mayor on North Yorkshire somehow. This is not a competent way to restructure local government or rebuild public trust in democracy as a whole, particularly when Governments mistrust metro mayors and very infrequently consult them on arrangements.
What do we need to do? We need to think hard about how we devolve powers within the dominant country of the United Kingdom. We need to think about how we make the necessary fiscal transfers much more transparent, and about how we build that into our union structures. I increasingly believe that the second Chamber should be based on representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, which is part of what would build in the checks and balances of the United Kingdom as a whole. For the clearly neglected regions of England—they feel even more neglected now—it would also symbolise that they are represented and seen in this disunited country.
We must worry about Scotland and we have to worry about Northern Ireland, but we must not forget that there are many parts of England which are now fundamentally discontented with our current Government. No doubt the voters of Wakefield will demonstrate that today, but I read in the Financial Times yesterday a very good interview on the sense of betrayal at the abandonment of most of Northern Powerhouse Rail; at the refusal to build an underground station in Manchester even though they are building one at Old Oak Common; and at the abandonment on the grounds of cost of putting a new tunnel through the Pennines even though they are putting a large and much longer tunnel under the Chilterns for HS2. All those things build distrust and discontent at the local and regional level. This very southern-based Government need to be aware of that, and as we look at the problems of maintaining co-operation with the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, it should not be forgotten.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for this opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate on our union, although I have learned a new meaning of the word “brief” while I have been in your Lordships’ House: it does not always mean “short”. I am sorry if I disappoint the hopes of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about my valedictory speech.
My time in your Lordships’ House has been limited—just over two years—partly because it has been right for my female colleagues to take precedence in joining your Lordships’ House and partly because it has been constrained by the pandemic. There has been a lot to learn as well as to admire in a place of such expertise and wisdom, but I regret that I have not been able to become more involved in the serious business of your Lordships’ House.
My nearly nine years as the Bishop of Blackburn are drawing to a close and I shall be moving from the special red rose county of Lancashire, where it has been a joy to live and serve and where we celebrate Her Majesty the Queen as the Duke of Lancaster in our singing of the national anthem. The north has been more than welcoming to a complete southerner, and, as with all places where clergy serve, a bit of my heart will remain there.
In our diocesan vision for 2026, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the diocese, we have set out to make the church community a healthy influence in every situation, not cutting back but planting new gatherings in places where Christian witness and worship have been absent, most notably on urban estates. We have been blessed by generous grants from the national Church and it has felt like a time of God’s favour, as God has given us a great team and we have sought unashamedly to make the person of Jesus Christ more widely known and believed.
It has been an honour when on duty here to lead the reading of scripture and the praying of the Prayers at the beginning of each Sitting here in your Lordships’ House, which signal something of our accountability and dependence on another: the one who is the source of all life and who sets the boundaries of how we should relate to one another, those standards and values that we were discussing a little earlier this afternoon—that Christian heritage that underpins so much of our national life.
I was intrigued to read in this report about the union the strains currently experienced in governance, accountability and finance between the four nations of the union, largely because of Brexit and devolution. I wonder, if a referendum is pressed for, whether so major a decision with consequences for the whole union should be decided by only one part and not take into account the view of the whole. But I know that is controversial.
It was especially good to see reference to the importance of the levelling-up agenda, reducing the gaps in our society in terms of wealth and aspiration, something we in the north-west are desperate to see taken forward. Government support for the Eden Project North in Morecambe Bay is one example of what will bring massive transformation in terms of jobs and the growth of the local economy in Lancashire.
However, I found two things missing from the report. First, there was very little about the monarchy as one of the key strengths and bonds across the union. The recent services of celebration for Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee and the thousands of street parties that gathered whole communities together in positive ways, across all kinds of social and ethnic divides, spoke volumes about something and someone who holds us together. In Blackburn Cathedral, we handed out 900 copies of a booklet, The Faithful Queen, telling the story of her humble service as a Christian to the union and the Commonwealth. She is a worthy recipient of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s gift of the Canterbury Cross for unstinting service to the Church of England, as well as to the union.
Secondly—noble Lords would expect me to say this—I could not find any reference to the role of the faith and charity sectors in strengthening life and co-operation across the United Kingdom. Obviously, in the past, the established Church has played a key role in this nation, with Lords spiritual present in this House. However, over time, the churches in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have become independent; new churches have also emerged. What is more, the presence of strong other-faith communities in the United Kingdom now challenges that Christian heritage as we make this country a place in which all faiths can practise without fear or favour.
In spite of all that change, I do not want us to lose a formal and recognised place for faith in our national life. It provides a crucial underpinning of who we are in being fully human—body, mind and soul—as this House carries out its vital roles of scrutinising legislation and commenting on the complex issues of the day. The Prayers at the start of each Sitting for wisdom and right judgment will continue to be my prayer for your Lordships’ House, although I will no longer have the privilege of being present. I am grateful to you all for your good wishes.
My Lords, it is a real honour and privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate’s short but moving speech. This is a bittersweet moment for us all because, as he said, he has been with us for only two years. It is less than two years since he made his maiden speech, which I read again this morning. It was referred to then by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who followed the right reverend Prelate, as
“a thoughtful and exemplary maiden speech”.—[Official Report, 8/9/20; col. 687.]
It clearly was.
This afternoon, we have heard an exemplary valedictory speech from a man who is both genuinely humble and totally determined. He really does live his faith, both in his diocese and here. He has led us in Prayers every day this week. He will be much missed because, although he has been with us for such a short time, he has made it plain that he is a campaigning bishop who is passionate about Christians and those of other faiths who are being persecuted around the world. We will long remember him. I wish him every possible happiness and success; I know that I speak for the whole House in saying that. He will now have more time for gardening, reading, cycling, DIY and the other things he lists as his recreations in Who’s Who and Dod’s. Godspeed—come back and see us often.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate. I thank and congratulate my long-time friend and noble friend Lord Lisvane, who was such a wonderful clerk of the other place and who has made this one of his subjects. I want to concentrate on two aspects. I was one of those who fought against devolution, with George Thomas in Wales in the early 1970s and the late, great Tam Dalyell, my great friend; I had the privilege of giving an address at his memorial service. Both of them strongly and passionately believed that devolution would weaken the unity of the United Kingdom.
We lost that battle and devolution has happened. We must, of course, do all we can to make it work, but we have to recognise that there is one fundamental problem. One of the nations of the United Kingdom, Scotland, has had a Government for many years now who are utterly determined on independence. They are not really interested in working together to make the United Kingdom a success because they are passionately keen to have an independent Scotland—they have every right to their views. What can we do about that?
I want to put one idea to your Lordships’ House. We have had a lead recently from our Lord Speaker, who has been liaising with the Presiding Officers in Edinburgh and Cardiff, and the Speaker in Belfast. I believe we should build on that as a United Kingdom Parliament. I agree with everything my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said about the desirability of having a Scottish equivalent of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, in this House, but I hope we can try to have a working group of Peers and Members of the other place, and elected Members of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly. What is of absolute importance, whatever the ultimate future, is the united prosperity of the United Kingdom. I believe that the elected representatives and your Lordships’ House can make a contribution.
One of the things I have valued about this place in my nearly 12 years here has been the way in which, in spite of all the tensions of Brexit, which have been unpleasant on occasions, we in your Lordships’ House disagree agreeably rather more effectively than in other places. I hope we can perhaps, with that accumulated wisdom for which we are supposed to be renowned, try to take a lead in bringing together parliamentarians from around the United Kingdom to see whether we can find a way forward in this very difficult time. After all, we could face a European or a world war within the next two years. We face terrible economic strains and difficulties, partly as a consequence of that war. We have a duty to those on whose behalf we seek to work to try to preserve prosperity, unity and peace. That is the prime duty of us all, whether we sit in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast or Westminster.
I hope that, following this debate, we can try to bring together a group of parliamentarians who will work for this prosperity. My noble friend Lord Lisvane, as a former clerk of the other place, would be well placed to do so. Then, if in due course a referendum comes, as it might well, I will fight with my son in Scotland—we are a united family—to keep the United Kingdom, but at least I would hope to do so against a background of prosperity, not of fractious division. I hope that is how we can work.
The noble Lord has made an excellent suggestion which is worthy of note, and we should consider it further.
I can identify with many of the remarks already articulated, but had anticipated building on the theme and questioning whether the UK is, or even can be, governed effectively with the complex structure to which we adhere. That has been touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. We set out from a single premise —the break-up of the union as we know it is not unthinkable. We do not need to go far back in time to find an example: Yugoslavia comes to mind. Preparing remarks for today has presented a quandary as to whether drawing attention to the challenges, complexities and inadequacies goes counter to the future of unionism. I am of the camp that recognises the positive contribution of today’s debate, but with it the responsibility and indeed necessity of listening and understanding by government.
Keeping the union relevant by changing the attitude towards the state of the union is essential and should be asked with greater urgency. Care should be taken that malaise, with the many competing priority policy areas requiring attention, does not place consideration of this on the back-burner. The union has proved durable and flexible over the centuries, evolving to meet the needs and aspirations of the people with its significant strengths and benefits. Devolution in the United Kingdom has been much more oriented towards the idea of self-rule by the devolved Governments and much less focused on the importance and practice of shared rule by the four Governments across the United Kingdom.
Over recent years, Brexit and the pandemic have exposed the inadequacy of the established ad hoc and reactive approach to handling relations with the devolved Governments. The practical and existential question as to whom in the 21st century the United Kingdom serves requires a definitional and careful response. Brexit was an assertion made up mostly by the English, and for the most part this Government are considered to be an English one, and only occasionally a British one. In understanding that it was the English community living in Wales that tilted that country to leave the European Union, should we be reflecting on why the devolved nations voted therefore to remain in the European Union, and in varying degrees to exit the union of the United Kingdom? What is it about one state of a union that does not apply to the other?
An effect of Brexit has been to loosen the social contract binding Britain’s union of nations together, revealing the union as of the English, by the English, for the English. Taken as a whole, there is no example of a federal state anywhere else where one of the components of the federation is so large. Northern Ireland is on the Brexit front line, and the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU state. Brexit affects Northern Ireland more directly than any other part of the UK, so too affecting the Republic of Ireland more directly than any other member state of the European Union.
The UK exhibits one of the world’s most centralised governance systems, at the same time exhibiting among the highest inter-regional productivity and income inequalities of any industrialised country. Relations are overly informal, ad hoc, hierarchical, statist and ill equipped for dealing with contemporary policy challenges. It is this overly centralised governance that places the union in greatest jeopardy—and so the ultimate break-up of the union. The urgent rise of the levelling-up agenda is, I trust, more than simply a badging exercise. If we are serious about levelling up, we need to deliver by fundamentally recalibrating the lines by which our governance is drawn, making better and more creative use of the powers and potential of the constitutional settlement we have. This requires delivery through a world-leading Civil Service, as has already been touched on. Whitehall must take a leadership role with civil servants in each Government, spending time learning about how the other Governments work by developing and extending practices such as joint training events, shadowing schemes and secondments, all of which would help to promote mutual understanding of the different contexts across the UK.
It is not just leadership that must change but also the mentality that the Civil Service must bring to its work. A good understanding of UK governance and devolution should be a prerequisite for promotion within the senior Civil Service by direct experience of governance outside Whitehall, either in devolved or local government. Some say that further constitutional change is the only way to address the problems confronting the union of the United Kingdom. This is not the solution. The supporters of devolution in 1998 said the measure would not only strengthen the union but also kill support for Scottish independence. The argument essentially was that Scotland would have the best of both worlds—self-government and unionism—and so never feel the need for formal secession.
I end with this single conclusion. The more you give heed to devolved structures, the more you stoke the embers of eventual independence and, with it, profound constitutional change.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this important debate. Stresses now exist in all four nations of the United Kingdom. My purpose is not to examine the specific stresses, but rather to focus on what needs to be done in response. There are four points I wish to make. In so doing, I will be reinforcing conclusions drawn by the Constitution Committee and the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in his excellent opening speech.
First, the challenges created in each nation require bespoke responses that are considered and evidence-based. There is a danger of rushing in with a policy that does not meet people’s needs or expectations. A clear example of this was seen during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. When an opinion poll showed a slight lead for independence, all three main party leaders rushed to Scotland to promise more devolution if Scotland voted to remain in the union. That was clearly premised on the assumption that that was what those who may vote to stay in the union wanted. Survey evidence suggests several different reasons for voting against independence, but that of favouring more devolution hardly figured. The biggest influence was the economic consequence of leaving the union.
Secondly, a reactive approach to the challenges in each nation must be complemented by a proactive UK-wide approach stressing the value of the union. As the Constitution Committee noted in its 2016 report, The Union and Devolution, the Government’s ad hoc approach to devolution had not been matched by any counterbalancing steps to protect the union. The four nations are stronger together. Each one benefits from being part of the kingdom. As the committee emphasised:
“The Union has brought stability, peace and prosperity to the United Kingdom”.
It is vital that the Government stop being on the back foot in dealing with stresses on the union. It must address them but, most importantly of all, if the union is to hold together, the Government must make the case for the union and the benefits it brings to all within it.
Thirdly, picking up on a point that has been stressed already, there needs to be complementarity, or rather comity, in relations between Whitehall and the Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a tendency for Whitehall to act in what has been termed a “grace and favour” way, rather than in one of mutual esteem and participation. As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Constitution Committee, Whitehall tends to see UK issues from an English perspective. There has always been a problem in communicating and in resolving any differences.
When I chaired the Constitution Committee in 2003, we produced a report on inter-institutional relations in the United Kingdom. We argued the case for ensuring that the mechanisms for resolving disputes, not least through the Joint Ministerial Council, remained in working order. Unfortunately, our recommendations were not acted on.
Fortunately, following the Dunlop report, there has now been progress in the form of the review of intergovernmental relations. Reform, though, must extend beyond structures to attitudes. What is needed is encapsulated in the Constitution Committee’s report of this January—to which we have already had reference—appropriately titled Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. As the report says at paragraph 279:
“To deal effectively with and respond to the challenges of governing the United Kingdom in the 21st century, significant culture change is required in Whitehall, including the end of its top-down mindset.”
There needs to be much earlier and more constructive engagement. There needs to be comity.
Fourthly, although the stresses in the four nations require bespoke responses, those responses need to be co-ordinated by a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for the union. As it is, having a Secretary of State for each of the three nations lends itself to seeing their departments as occupying silos—the Constitution Committee has expressed concern at the Government’s tendency to “devolve and forget”—and at times it may not always be clear what the purpose of each department is. I appreciate that there is now a Cabinet committee, the Union Strategy Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. The fact that he chairs it signifies its importance, but the Prime Minister has many other responsibilities, including chairing eight other Cabinet committees. I appreciate that the Union Policy Implementation Committee is chaired by the Levelling Up Secretary, but he too has other responsibilities. The Dunlop review recommended a Secretary of State for intergovernmental and constitutional affairs. Such a Secretary of State would ensure that a holistic approach was taken to the union and that the needs of the union were heard in Cabinet. The more senior the Minister in the pecking order, the clearer it would be that the Prime Minister is committed to the union.
The stresses facing the union are considerable. By tackling some, there is the danger of creating others. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, emphasised, we have now to address the English question as much as the Scottish one. To tackle the stresses, we need to be on the front foot to take the lead in making the case for the union. We need to be proactive and confident, not reactive and defensive. These are all points made in various reports of the Constitution Committee. The Government should act on them. I trust that my noble friend the Minister will explain in more than broad aspirational terms the Government’s plan to make the case for the union and how leadership will be provided in government, ideally by a Secretary of State for the constitution.
There are obviously other challenges facing the Government, but they cannot afford to take their eye off ensuring that the union of the United Kingdom remains exactly that.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Lisvane for suggesting this topic. Going back to what I said earlier this afternoon and, again, talking about where I come from, India was supposed to have been acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness by the British. I think we have devolved in a fit of absent-mindedness. We have not devolved systematically; we have devolved by bits and pieces. That is the way we do things.
Let me start at the beginning: we are a union, not a federation. The problem is, can we become a federation while maintaining the unity of a union that is now coming apart? Because we do not do things formally, because we do things by bits and pieces and because our constitution is not unwritten but scattered all over the place—as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has often reminded us—we have a very unsystematic way of doing things, but that is the way we do them. I think the time has now come to say that our unique pattern of doing things no longer works. The world has changed; people are very conscious of their rights across all classes. Therefore, it will not be possible for a few good chaps to come together and settle the problem.
At some stage, something formal will have to be done, if possible. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and other noble Lords have made suggestions. The Government will not do anything formal and systematic in this. They have absolutely no interest in starting all sorts of controversies that they cannot control. The only agency which can do anything about this is your Lordships’ House. The suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is one that we should follow very seriously: to construct a meeting of the Parliaments of all the devolved Administrations, and your Lordships’ House, though not the other place, which has its own problems to deal with. Let us try to emulate what Scotland did: it had a convention which was informally and socially created, and which was discussing the problem of Scottish devolution ages before Scottish devolution was legislated. We need something like that.
Obviously, it would not have government authority or government sanction, but we ought to find ways of doing it informally, privately or whatever, meeting regularly to say, “This is a problem that we can all settle only jointly.” We must have serious lawmakers, lawyers and constitutional experts in our gathering, chosen from the already elected Members of the various legislative assemblies. A document of some sort could then be put forward that would prod any Government in power by then to do something systematic and thorough about preserving the union, and going from a union to a healthy federation of some sort. A union is too centralised a concept. India has become a union rather than a federation. I could bore all your Lordships on the difference between the Government of India Act 1935 and the Indian constitution, but that is for another day. It should be a federation, not a union.
I end by saying one small thing. When there was a proposal to reform your Lordships’ House during the coalition Government, we had a consultation by a Joint Committee chaired by Lord Richard. I submitted a note to that Committee, which is in print, suggesting that we should have a new version of your Lordships’ House, elected by single transferrable vote, from 10 regions of England and the three devolved Assemblies, with 30 Members each. If we had the House of Lords made up of people who were representing all the devolved nations and England, then we would have a federal Chamber.
We need the composition of a body as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to reflect that kind of balance. It should have people from each of the devolved agencies and from your Lordships’ House. It should work in its own time to propose a solution to the problem of the union. If we can do that, this alone will prod the Government of whichever party is in power to do something about it. Otherwise, Governments at the other end have no incentive to do anything about the union, because they have all the power and they are not going to give any of it up.
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Desai, sits down, I apologise for breaking in at the end of his remarks but if we were to agree and able to implement the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, this grouping should contain members of Sinn Féin and the SNP, so that we deal with all this in the fullest manner possible.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, not only for initiating the debate but for the work he has done in bringing forward practical suggestions as to how we might carry out reform. He has also triggered clear enthusiasm in this House for it to take initiatives which might propel thoughtful measures of reform to secure the future workings of the United Kingdom. I think we would all commend that, but I hope that we can find some way of organising a committee that will take it forward. I speak as someone who was a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention for quite a few years, and I honestly believe that the Scotland Act—imperfect as it was—was infinitely better because of the convention than the previous example of the Labour Government’s attempt to do it without such background work. I believe that it was an extremely good initiative.
We are all grateful for the contributions of the right reverend Prelate during his two years here and in his valedictory address, which was short and sweet, but very much to the point. We wish him well in his future.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made one particular point of detail which I need to take him up on: it is not true that Scottish students cannot study outside Scotland. In fact, it is worse than that: many Scottish students must study outside Scotland, because, although tuition fees are free, the number of places have been capped by the Scottish Government so that the vast majority of Scottish students cannot get into Scottish universities and, indeed, have to move. My own son has chosen to move; he is matriculating at a London university this coming year, having been disappointed about his participation in the Scottish system—
It was a valid point, nevertheless.
It is also important that the dimension of England is addressed. We recognise that England is very much the largest component of the union, but it is also very diverse. The shortcomings of governance in England are real, and part of the tensions we are talking about, but a federalism based on English regions is not something that anyone really believes is the way forward.
I am sorry to say this, but it is clear that the union is in no way safe in the hands of this Government under their dysfunctional, incoherent and—frankly—careless leadership—or rather lack of it. As I have said, we all know that a tidy federal solution to the governance of the United Kingdom is not easy to achieve, even if there were a will for it, which there is not. However, that does not excuse us for not striving for a relationship among the component parts of the UK based on consensus, mutual respect, fair shares and, as has been said repeatedly, co-operation—all ultimately reinforced by a legal constitutional settlement and dispute resolution mechanism.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that it is not about more power; it is about attitude and engagement. However, there must be a backstop with some kind of recourse and dispute resolution mechanism, because we have seen how the UK Government behave without one in relation to the devolved Administrations. I for one, privately, did not think that the vow at the end of the referendum in 2016 was necessary or helpful. I agree that lots of people were voting to stay in the United Kingdom as it was, without necessarily requiring change.
It is also an inescapable fact that the glue—the word used, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane—provided by the EU helped in regard to agreed rules and to secure the Good Friday agreement; after all, the EU is one of its guarantors. It also gave the devolved Administrations and the UK Government a degree of clarity and security. That has all been swept away by the return of EU powers to the UK. I am not trying to reverse that, but it has been aggravated by a ham-handed application, for example, of the internal market Act and, to a lesser extent, the Subsidy Control Act.
I am also a member of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, which is about to agree its final report. When first set out, it appeared that common frameworks offered the way to achieve the kind of partnership within the UK that would build confidence, and they still could. However, it is clear that they are in danger of being downgraded into a simple process rather than being rather more substantial policy agreements allowing for divergence.
Thanks to the excellent report by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, we have new inter-government agreement, set out this year, which appears to offer a positive way forward, but, again, it depends on the will of the UK Government to apply it in spirit as well as in letter. It depends on that, and the UK Government, as always, have the upper hand. Frankly, the qualities needed are sadly lacking, and when they are not applied, there is no redress. But—and it is a big but—the strains on the union are not all one-way. The agreement signed by the Prime Minister to give appearance to his claim to get Brexit done was flawed at the outset, in terms of Northern Ireland in particular.
The Government’s own website made that clear. On the day during the election campaign when the Prime Minister was categorically denying that there would be extra bureaucracy between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the website showed exactly how much bureaucracy there would be. That was the price for no border on the island of Ireland, and the Government and the Prime Minister knew that. The intransigence of the DUP and the belligerence of the UK Government have aggravated a situation which could be substantially alleviated by an agreement, so the governance of Northern Ireland is stalled and the Good Friday agreement is at risk. I may be biased, but there is one glimmer of hope in this situation, which is the stagnation of support for the two more extreme parties and the strengthening of the middle ground in the form of Alliance—I must point out that it is the Liberal Democrats’ sister party.
It is true that in Wales we have an Administration who clearly want devolution to work—it is important that we acknowledge that—but are frustrated by the attitude of the UK Government to the extent of taking legal action. They have set up their own constitutional committee, and I hope it will come forward with positive proposals designed to secure devolution, not independence. However, if the Government cannot carry opinion in Wales, what hope do they have elsewhere?
Respect needs to be a two-way process. The DUP’s refusal to go back into government lets down the majority of people in Northern Ireland, who require a Government to take decisions. In Scotland, the SNP has shown scant regard for public opinion. Twice in a democratic vote, the people of Scotland have, in effect, supported the devolution settlement which has evolved, yet the SNP has shown no interest in making devolution work. Of course, as has been said, the nationalists campaign for independence, and that is their right, but Scotland has not voted for independence, and by undermining and trashing devolution and United Kingdom co-operation, the SNP is betraying the people of Scotland and letting them down.
The SNP claims it has a mandate for independence, but that is not the case. When the question was asked, independence was rejected, and opinion appears to be settled at about the same level. The coalition with the Greens has a majority and both parties support independence, but it is questionable whether that is really a mandate. The SNP appears to be a champion of first past the post at the moment and has questioned the legitimacy of pro-UK MSPs who are elected from the list, seemingly missing the irony that the Greens are entirely elected from the list. Is the Scottish Green Party a surrogate nationalist party or an environmental campaign party? Either way, its mandate is very unclear.
This raises another strain on the United Kingdom in the shape of an outdated, flawed and less than representative voting system. The SNP secured 3.88% of the UK vote in 2019 and 9% of the seats. The Conservatives secured 43.63% of the vote and 56% of the seats. Labour fell only six seats short of that vote share, and, yes, the Liberal Democrats, with 11% of the vote, secured less than 2% of the seats. This is important because it means that, with its sister party the Alliance, a UK-wide political grouping with three times as many votes as the SNP is severely squeezed in its participation in UK parliamentary business in the House of Commons, and that distorts the balance of the House of Commons, in which SNP MPs, on 45% of the Scottish vote, secured 81% of the Scottish seats. That is neither proportionate nor healthy.
In conclusion, I want to ask the SNP and its followers: “Do you speak Belgian?” I know noble Lords will appreciate the subtlety of that question. The SNP is suggesting to the people of Scotland that they have more in common with a country that has three languages, none of which is English or Belgian, than they do with their fellow citizens elsewhere in the UK. To reinforce this to nationalists, all things British are demeaned and vilified. That is easy when talking about the current Prime Minister, but when applied to values across our culture, it is insidious, nasty, divisive and unjustified.
The by-election today could well demonstrate that the character of the government of the United Kingdom is heading for a change. Destroying a centuries-old arrangement that has served us well, for all its strains, should not depend on the short-term vicissitudes of changing political colours. Politics should be more than demonising your opponents. The SNP has denied the obvious benefits of being part of the UK, and however compromised those are currently, it needs to recognise that a majority still wants the United Kingdom to thrive.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for bringing this excellent debate to the House. It has been extremely interesting and was very much enhanced by the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and we wish him good luck for the future.
I draw the House’s attention to the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election, where it said that
“strengthening the great Union between the United Kingdom’s four nations”
was one of the ways the Conservatives intended to
“unleash our country’s full potential.”
In a recent QSD, the Minister repeated the Government’s commitment to strengthening the union, by
“protecting and promoting its combined strengths and the values that we all share, and ensuring that the institutions of the United Kingdom are used to benefit people in every part of the country”.
I am sure, having heard this debate, that we would all agree with those sentiments. He said also that the Government were “great believers in devolution”, and that the new IGR arrangements would
“herald a new era for collaboration across the United Kingdom”.—[ Official Report, 9/6/22; col. GC 122.]
I am sure we would all like to see more collaboration, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said, devolution is not always that easy.
I thank the Select Committee for its excellent report, which helped us understand many of the issues.
I turn to some of the issues raised in the debate. A common theme was that the stresses and strains are getting worse. The departure from the European Union has clearly affected relationships within the union of the United Kingdom, as well as with the EU. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for going into quite considerable detail about this. As the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said, the present situation remains untidy; there is much to be done. We know that the common frameworks process was set up following Brexit, but that led to disagreements between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government. The House of Lords Constitution Committee concluded, in a report earlier this year, that implementing Brexit had placed the Sewel convention “under great strain”.
Disagreements have also arisen between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations over post-Brexit funding arrangements, so no wonder there are stresses and strains, and it seems that the situation is getting worse.
A number of noble Lords talked about the particular issues around Northern Ireland. We know that the DUP’s response to the protocol has had an impact on the functioning of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland in recent months. I will not go into detail about this as it was covered excellently by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. But the issues around the protocol are clearly very serious, and the Government, as the noble Lord said, have to take this much more seriously, and not make quick decisions based on politics rather than the likely outcomes of those decisions.
We know that non-unionist parties in Northern Ireland have expressed their strong objection to the Government’s approach to the protocol, and wrote a joint letter—which is very unusual for those parties—to the Prime Minister sharing their concerns. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, explained the situation further, referring to the Government’s inability to sort out the problems we now have in Stormont. We will never move forward until we can resolve these issues.
One thing that has come through strongly in this debate is the importance of co-operation, collaboration and engagement, which has been mentioned on a number of occasions, and the fact that this Government have seemed incapable of doing that in a constructive way, particularly regarding the problems with Northern Ireland. If we are going to resolve these issues, surely that is what we need to do with all our devolved Administrations and with the EU, where appropriate.
Scotland has also been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. The current point of tension regarding the Scottish Government’s intention to hold a second referendum is clearly very difficult as we look at how the union is going to survive going forward. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in particular talked about the stresses this policy of independence is placing on the Scottish Government. Nicola Sturgeon is arguing that Brexit represents
“a significant and material change”
to the circumstances in which independence was voted on back in 2014. She will push very hard for this, and the Government need to think about how they will manage and handle this going forward.
There was also discussion about Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, mentioned that Wales is becoming more and more unhappy with the current constitutional arrangements. The Government really need to tackle this early on. They need to talk to the Welsh Government, councils in Wales and so on about how they want to see the constitution going forward, so that we can move forward together.
Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, talked about England, particularly Yorkshire. We must not forget that the rest of the UK is a critical part of strengthening our union. Right across our country, there are local communities who feel they are being denied a voice in the decision-making which affects their day-to-day lives. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, absolutely rightly, that many areas of the UK are very different. There is a widespread feeling that the UK is not working for everyone at the moment. The Government’s lack of enthusiasm for delivering power to nations and regions could also put the union under threat.
We feel that Ministers must properly examine our democracy, constitution, future direction and future purpose as a country as a basis for any new constitutional arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, talked about the fact that we are the most centralised democracy. That is not healthy for the union. However, any new devolution must be delivered by working with communities—with the metro mayors, mayors, local leaders and councillors—so decisions are made together.
We also feel that the stresses on the union have been exacerbated by the economic policies we have seen recently, which have levied disproportionate public service cuts and amounted to a sense that we have not all been in this together. For this reason, the UK also needs a new and transformational economic settlement to properly level up the country and show that the union can exist to reduce regional inequalities. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn talked about the importance of levelling up. This must be central to any constitutional work going forward.
From this debate we have seen that there are concerns right across the UK as to the genuine desire, ability and political will of this Government to live up to the manifesto commitment I referred to at the start, to truly strengthen our union and unleash our country’s great potential. It does not seem to be happening at the moment. As we have discussed, co-operative working is really what is needed, along with—as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said—calmness and purpose. We need a sense of the importance of making thought-out, considered decisions regarding the union and any devolution and, above all, to have respect for each other.
I am really looking forward to the Minister’s response. This has been an excellent debate, and I would particularly like to hear his thoughts on the proposed committee idea. It is good to have a debate in which there has been real, constructive thought on how we can move forward.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for securing this debate on such an important topic. I also enjoyed the valedictory speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. He raised two important issues in a succinct contribution: the role of the monarchy in holding the union together, which is fundamental—we saw this with the Platinum Jubilee—and the role that faith communities, communities of all faiths, play in our lives. For a time, until the first reshuffle, I was the Communities Minister and had responsibility for faith. I was able in my last few days to launch the Faith New Deal, which was a way to put money into projects to work with faith communities to improve the lives of everybody in this United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom is a family of nations and a nation of families, standing up for and embodying in its institutions liberty under the law, respect for all, fair play, free trade, parliamentary democracy and progress. In response to the points made by my noble friend Lord Norton, the union is very much a living political, cultural and economic success story. As he pointed out, there is so much to gain from the union. When we act together as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous.
The union also provides safety and security, allowing all parts of the UK to benefit from the economies of scale offered by our shared resources and our ability to influence on the international stage. It enables us to protect the values we hold in common across our United Kingdom. I think a noble Lord called into question whether we would retain a seat on the Security Council. Clearly, that is somewhere where we gain great stature as a United Kingdom.
I also reaffirm that we are absolutely committed to devolution. Devolution offers citizens the best of both worlds. It allows decisions to be taken closer to the communities they affect, while still benefiting from the broad shoulders the union provides. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned the English question, but we recognise that it is important to celebrate devolution. That is why we launched the levelling up White Paper with a commitment that, by 2030, every part of England that wants a devolution deal will have one. Devolution is critical to delivering levelling up, supporting local leaders so they can more flexibly and innovatively respond to local needs, whether on transport, skills or regeneration.
We are also committed to working collaboratively with the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many noble Lords mentioned that in January 2022, we marked a new chapter in intergovernmental relations with new principles and structures for working together, agreed after a joint review. Each Government have agreed to operate under the improved arrangements and to move forward together with implementation of this new system. I point out to my noble friend Lord Norton, who called for comity, which, I believe, is an association of nations for mutual benefit, that we are absolutely committed to translating both the spirit and the content of the new arrangements into consistent approaches and actions. Already, more than 10 portfolio-level inter-ministerial groups are fully up and running, and the two middle-tier inter-ministerial standing committees have each met at least once. We have a Minister for Intergovernmental Relations; I am in his department, and that is why I am at this Dispatch Box. The Minister has had 80 meetings, I think, in the past year on aspects of the union, and there have been 440 inter-ministerial meetings with Governments. We show a real commitment to working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations.
It is hard to characterise the working relationship as one of imperial condescension when the facts are that we are providing 20% more funding per person as part of the spending review. That is 26% more per person for the Scottish Government, 20% more per person for the Welsh Government and 21% more per person for the Northern Ireland Executive. These are substantial sums of investment into the other nations.
I return to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about taking forward my noble friend Lord Cormack’s idea. We believe that interparliamentary relations were strengthened by structures such as the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit, and the Government will consider further developments in this area. Should the Speakers of each House whish to explore setting up such a forum, we will consider supporting it. We will take that away from this debate and consider it in due course.
One of the comments of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, was on Civil Service capability. We have implemented the vast majority of the recommendations of the Dunlop review, and we have a programme to enhance the devolution knowledge and intergovernmental working of civil servants, enabling them to deliver more effectively when designing and implementing policies—it is important to have that underpinning.
Further to getting devolution to work, we started the process of city and growth deals, which began in 2014, with a joint agreement between the UK Government and the relevant devolved Governments, local authorities and partners from the public, private and education sectors. The UK Government have so far committed almost £2.9 billion in funding across 20 such deals in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including almost £1.49 billion in Scotland, £791 million in Wales and £617 million in Northern Ireland. We continued this good work by reaching a landmark agreement with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to work together to deliver two new freeports in Scotland and one in Wales.
Comment was made on the common frameworks that have been developed. The common framework programme is an integral part of our consensual approach to the union. Throughout its development, the programme has embodied the spirit of openness and transparency with the devolved Governments. It has enabled us to manage regulatory divergence covered by the programme in a way that works for consumers and businesses in the union. We are working closely with colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to publish the six remaining frameworks for scrutiny by Members of this House and the devolved legislatures. Ministers within the UK Government and the devolved Administrations play an important role in scrutinising and approving those frameworks.
I turn to Northern Ireland. It is vital that the parties form an Executive as soon as possible—that continues to be this Government’s central message. Northern Ireland has the best of both worlds when it has a stable Northern Ireland Executive backed up by the support and strength of the UK Government. The New Decade, New Approach agreement previously restored the devolved institutions after a three-year impasse. As set out in legislation, this agreement provided for a period of up to 24 weeks for Northern Ireland’s political representatives to restore functioning devolved institutions. The Government expect the parties to make full use of this time to engage with one another in earnest to restore fully functioning devolved institutions at an early stage. The people of Northern Ireland need a stable and accountable Government who deliver on the issues that are important to them, which is why we continue to urge the parties to come together and form an Executive as soon as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, all mentioned the proposed legislation introduced last week, which aims to fix the practical problems that the Northern Ireland protocol has created. We believe that the legislation avoids a hard border, protects the integrity of the United Kingdom and safeguards the EU single market. However, it is our preference to resolve this through talks; our door remains open, but the EU has so far not been willing to change the protocol, which is necessary to deliver the solutions needed for Northern Ireland.
The union’s strength and its value have been displayed time and again over recent years, from providing up to £400 billion in Covid support to individuals, businesses and public services, including 1.7 million jobs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to having regular meetings with devolved government Ministers to discuss the illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and agreeing the UK-wide approach for settling Ukrainian refugees.
Now more than ever, we should pool our collective efforts in addressing the most pressing problems of the day. That is why our citizens expect our focus not to be on divisive activities that threaten our union. As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, Scotland has not voted for independence. I am pleased that my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord Cormack stand firm in preserving the union and, in the case of my noble friend Lord Cormack, campaigning through his son against Scottish independence. As the Government have said many times, this is not the time to be talking about referenda. The people of Scotland rightly expect both their Governments to work together and place their full focus on the issues that really matter. That is what is important at this time.
Last year’s Autumn Budget provided the largest annual block grants in real terms of any spending review settlement since devolution in 1998—that is real commitment—and included the first allocation of the UK-wide funds, including the levelling-up fund and the community ownership fund. The Spring Statement set out measures to support citizens across the United Kingdom with shared challenges, not least the cost of living. Since then, families and businesses across the UK have benefited from a 12-month cut in fuel duty, and millions of UK households are eligible for access to a £15 billion package of targeted support.
We are taking specific action in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, including putting local voices at the heart of decision-making through the UK shared prosperity fund, launching an innovation accelerator in Glasgow City Region and establishing a UK national academy to provide a first-class education to all children in the United Kingdom.
Levelling up is a national effort that will require all levels of government to use the levers at their disposal. We look forward to ongoing collaboration with the devolved Governments on this crucial work and will support our citizens to take advantage of opportunities wherever they may live, for that is in the best interests of our union.
I hope that I have made it clear that this Government are doing what we believe to be in the best interests of the union and the citizens who live in every part of it. We will continue the mission to deliver a strong, prosperous and united kingdom, one which stands strong on the world’s stage.
My Lords, I shall not attempt a retrospective of this afternoon’s debate—given the scope of opinion and experience involved, that would be an entirely impractical idea—but I am very happy to thank the Minister for his detailed reply. Like other noble Lords, perhaps I may single out the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn. I entirely endorse the eloquent words earlier of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. When the right reverend Prelate leaves us, perhaps to embark on a new career as stellar as his present one, he will know that he takes with him the warmest good wishes of every Member of this House.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, and to my Cross-Bench colleagues who voted for this as one of the topics to be debated. I hope that your Lordships will see fit to approve the Motion.