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Intergovernmental Relations Within the United Kingdom

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 18 January 2024

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

My Lords, last Saturday, 13 January, was the second anniversary of the servicing of the new UK intergovernmental relationship regime, replacing the October 2013 arrangements that had been so overtaken by events. Today is therefore a good time for us to be here to debate this vital structural component of our union.

The past 25 years have seen huge changes in how we are governed, with the devolution of much power from Westminster in various stages. However, the job of creating the mechanics of how the UK’s resulting governmental bodies interact has struggled to keep step. This has contributed to the significant creaks and groans within the union that have been of such concern to so many here today, and certainly to me.

Before I make some remarks about this new regime, I think it worth briefly reviewing the history. In 1999, following the first round of devolution, the first of a succession of memoranda of understanding was agreed. It sought to promote and improve relations between the UK and the devolved Governments and was updated several times, including in 2012. That led to the draft MoU of October 2013, which, until January 2022, as a draft, was the documentary repository of the arrangements between the four Governments. The October 2013 MoU vested responsibility for the arrangements under it within the UK Government with the Deputy Prime Minister, a position vacant from May 2015 to September 2021: there was no captain of the ship.

The Scottish independence referendum was in September 2014. The resulting Smith commission agreement led to a substantial additional number of powers being devolved, as duly happened pursuant to the Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017. These significant changes in the devolution settlements represented yet more things that the drafters of the October 2013 MoU had not sought to address at the time.

The Constitution Committee delivered an excellent report, The Union and Devolution, in May 2016. It concluded that the UK Government must

“devise and articulate a coherent vision for the shape and structure of the United Kingdom, without which there cannot be constitutional stability”.

The Brexit process kicked off in June 2016, just a month later, and exacerbated the situation. In the European Union Committee’s report of June 2017, Brexit: Devolution, we said:

“The devolved governments, and some of our witnesses, have also argued that fundamental reform is needed to give the devolved institutions a more formal role in UK decision-making post-Brexit, analogous to that of regions and states in federal systems”.

The start of 2018 was probably the low point, but in March 2018 a review of intergovernmental relations, the IGR review, was launched. This was, to quote GOV.UK, a

“joint review of the existing Memorandum of Understanding on Devolution”.

In July 2019, the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, was asked to review the UK Government’s union capability, a task he very ably concluded in late November that year. Then, after a period of great silence, on 24 March 2021 the Dunlop review and an update on the IGR review were published. The Dunlop review is a seminal and well thought-through document, and it is a pity it had to wait in the wings for 16 months. It had a number of principal propositions, including the creation of a great new office of state in the Cabinet and the reorganisation of the devolved nation departments, with a single Permanent Secretary.

The 15-page update on the IGR review, by then three years in the making, appeared to be quite close to the finishing post and, as I said, the final document surfaced on 13 January 2022, about four years after the start of that review. What also appeared, on 24 March 2021, was the inaugural Intergovernmental Relations Quarterly Report, then a Cabinet Office document. This has now settled into a rhythm of quarterly reports, with a larger annual report into IGR activity. This transparency is as commendable as it is vital, and I will come back to it shortly. That, then, is the potted history. It demonstrates a woeful lack of focus on devolved matters over many years. Even if we have a better structure now, the challenge is how to use it to the advantage of us all and our union.

I turn therefore to the most recent intergovernmental relations quarterly report. As I said, the first iteration was a Cabinet Office document. Today, these responsibilities form only part of the portfolio of one of the busiest ministries, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Michael Gove is also the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, but it seems that this vital task is not important enough to make it into the ministry name. The symbolism here is wrong, and we must do better.

On looking at the dashboard for the meetings in Q3, and for the rolling 12 months to Q3, I am struck by the asymmetric level of engagement. DLUHC had 28 IGR meetings in the rolling 12 months. The Ministry of Defence had one. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology had none, albeit that it has been in existence for only six months. There is also a concern that IGR meetings are generally ad hoc, and not fully planned and diarised well ahead. Can the Minister describe to us how DLUHC tries to ensure full engagement by all Whitehall departments, and what constitutes an IGR meeting?

One of the reasons why the IGR mechanism took almost four years to surface was the negotiation of the dispute resolution mechanism among the parties. Two years in, can the Minister say how many disputes have been raised and how many have been resolved? On 20 December 2023, Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP spoke of the dispute over the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill in a formal Statement to the Scottish Parliament. She said:

“Before the Bill reached stage 3, we reached out to the UK Government, finally getting a meeting with the Equalities Minister the day before stage 3 started”.

Stage 3 is the final stage of the legislative process in Scotland. Minister Somerville and her team were clearly aware of the problem of the potential clash of the Scottish Bill with the UK’s equalities legislation, which is why they sought out the Whitehall Equalities Minister. However, I can find no mention of the IGR mechanism being engaged on the issue at all. Can the Minister confirm whether the IGR mechanism was engaged at any time over this debacle, whether a dispute was at any time raised and what lessons have been learned from this most difficult issue?

On 27 November last year, 20 months after the surfacing of the new IGR structure, DLUHC published a paper entitled the Intergovernmental Relations Secretariat. This was very helpful, if rather horribly late. Can the Minister tell us whether the secretariat is made up of full-time dedicated staff and includes staff members from all four Governments? In any event, the IGR mechanism is so important to our union that an annual and formal debate in both Houses on the state of intergovernmental relations is a necessity. Can she also comment on this?

In January 2020, I was in Canada at a conference of Commonwealth speakers representing the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Our host had also invited the speakers of its many regional assemblies. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to speak to many of the Canadians. The consistent message was how much effort they put into their union, with a regular diet of meetings and gatherings and the consistent involvement of the Prime Minister. One especially experienced speaker told me that, after their Quebec tensions in the mid-1990s, “We not only had to talk the talk—we had to walk the walk”. The Canadian model includes its Ottawa Government, the 10 provinces and three territories. They have around 80 structured meetings a year. Its dedicated secretariat comes from the participants. It has its own informative website, albeit that the more sensitive meetings have no public documents. The secretariat is neutral and fully independent. Are the Government looking at the Canadian model for intergovernmental relations—or any other models—in what I hope is an unending search for the best?

In closing, I note that this House has spent a lot of the last year on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act. This foresees, among much else, English devolution. Will the Minister comment on whether English devolved Administrations would be an equivalent part of the devolved intergovernmental structures within the United Kingdom? In any event, I very much look forward to this debate and its strong field of speakers. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for securing this debate and for his excellent introduction to the issues. Commuting as I do from Glasgow, I clearly have a Scottish focus on the issue of intergovernmental relations. I think that I will be in the minority today; the Welsh contributions will be more numerous. I note, once again, my disappointment at the lack of representation in this House from the party currently in government in Scotland. That is its choice, but one that I fear cuts off its nose to spite its face.

I declare my interests as laid out in the register. My work as a board member of Creative Scotland and as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland brings me into regular contact with the Scottish Government and their officials, and I currently chair the Scottish Government’s National Advisory Committee for Neurological Conditions.

In preparation for today, I turned to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre’s most recent briefing on intergovernmental relations, which outlines, as the noble Earl touched on, how many different bodies have wrestled with this issue, including parliamentary committees, academics, independent commissions and the excellent Dunlop review. The majority of these criticised the previous Joint Ministerial Committee for a number of reasons, including ineffective dispute resolution, the role of the UK Government and a lack of transparency. The question, surely, is whether the three-tier system implemented by this Government since 2021 has fared any better. The noble Earl asked the Minister for very specific responses on some of these issues, and I look forward to her replies. I am afraid the sticking point is that, whatever this Government may do, as Michael Gove, the Minister responsible, points out in his foreword to the IGR annual report for 2022,

“this is not a one-government job”.

For over two-thirds of the Scottish Parliament’s 25 years, the SNP—which is, by definition, opposed to devolution—has been the party in government in Holyrood. The SNP’s raison d’être is independence, and everything it does and says is measured through that lens alone. As long as there is devolution, there is no independence. Humza Yousaf has already confirmed that independence will be “page one, line one” of the SNP manifesto at the next general election.

In the early years, day-to-day relationships could be managed through informal political channels by representatives from the same party, relying on good will. Any pretence that this Scottish Administration have to good will or co-operation between Holyrood and Westminster is long gone. Over the past 25 years, much has changed. We have devolved yet more powers to the Scottish Parliament—tax raising and social security, for example. We hoped they would contribute to Scotland taking more responsibility over its own affairs, but we did this without implementing any additional accountability or scrutiny.

So, the Scottish Government make their choices. Scotland is the highest-taxed and most complicated tax area of the United Kingdom. Its health service is close to breaking point; its education system has plummeted down the rankings; and business and enterprise are treated with contempt. Public spending in Scotland amounts to 50% of GDP. Making different choices, though, is the whole point of devolution.

What should this Government do about the state of intergovernmental relations with Scotland? I agree with Michael Gove, who said in an evidence session to the Constitution Committee that, from a Westminster perspective,

“on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis Ministers have very good relationships with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations”.

I also welcome the devolving of civil servants away from London and across the UK, including to Scotland. However, Mr Gove recognised in that same evidence session that

“Ministers in the Scottish Government have a different constitutional vision, so there is an incentive for them, when a political platform is provided, to try to amplify what they perceive to be weaknesses … and to downplay the day-to-day effectiveness of our arrangements”.

This was clearly in evidence during Covid, with competing daily press conferences, and continues today with the opening of Scottish government offices and ministerial meetings abroad.

The hypocrisy of the SNP, on the one hand barely tolerating our monarchical structure in Scotland while Angus Robertson was quick to offer to host the new King and Queen of Denmark due to her “strong Scottish connections”, is breath-taking but unsurprising. It is just another way to find every opportunity to push the limits of the Scotland Act.

We will not have any real opportunity for change until the next Scottish Parliament elections in May 2026. Until then, I urge this Government and any future Westminster Administration not to fall into any of the SNP’s traps. Whether it is regarding equalities and gender recognition, recycling or foreign affairs, all are painted to the Scottish public as examples of the “democratic deficit”. They are staging posts on the “journey” to independence. If the SNP loses those elections then, as its MP Tommy Sheppard put it,

“the debate on independence stops”.

Hooray, I say.

Perhaps then we can focus on what we should change. Perhaps we could agree on what thresholds need to be reached before any future constitutional referendum is contemplated. Perhaps we need to revisit the Scotland Act to impose some much-needed scrutiny on the woefully incompetent legislation emerging out of Holyrood. Perhaps that is why the SNP disapproves of your Lordships’ House so much—it fears the scrutiny of a second Chamber.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure, as always, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie. I should reassure her that the Welsh are very rarely in a majority in this House. We should take advantage of that this afternoon. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for enabling us to have this debate and for the forensic way in which he introduced it. It is timely because there is much to welcome in the new IGR structure, especially the greater clarity in terms of process, accountabilities and dispute resolution. As he was saying, this is a work in progress and I entirely agree with him about the challenges of how it will be used. I look forward to the Minister’s response to his important questions.

I will focus on Wales, because what gives this debate extra edge today is that we have had the much-anticipated report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, chaired by our very own Archbishop Rowan Williams, and by Professor Laura McAllister. It has concluded that

“The relationship between the UK government and the devolved governments has fallen far short of the co-operation that citizens expect and which is essential to the successful operation of the Union”.

It calls on the need to protect the Union from the risk of “gradual attrition” if steps are not taken to secure it, and sets out the options for Wales in terms of the future of its governance.

Now, its conclusions consolidate much of what has been marked by intergovernmental relations of recent years. However banal this may sound, no matter how good our structures are, unless those trusted relationships can be retained and made resilient, Westminster and the devolved Administrations will always have an asymmetrical relationship.

That is certainly reflected in Wales’s relationship with Westminster. In July last year, the UK’s conduct towards Wales was described as

“attempts to undermine the devolution settlement and … continued disrespect for the Welsh Government and the Senedd”,

which has damaged intergovernmental working. When he was asked during the Covid inquiry how the new intergovernmental structures were working, the First Minister said they would work only where there were existing good relationships in place, but that

“the new machinery has not succeeded in sparking those arrangements”

or “new forms of interaction”, and that too often relationships just reflected the whim or will of the individual Minister. Indeed, we saw the failure of that will during the Covid pandemic itself, when, despite what we were told in this House, the relationship between Wales and Westminster was one of incommunicado some of the time. Now, that was a basic failure of courtesy, let alone co-ordinated policy.

This House has seen at first hand how the Government have introduced legislation that has overridden the basic precepts of devolution—consultation and consent—and this is documented in the commission’s report. But in this House, I am delighted to say that noble Lords have played a key role in protecting the devolution settlement from the worst effects of provocative legislation, presented to the DAs without care or consultation.

The Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, which I had the privilege of chairing for two and a half years, had a ringside seat—sometimes we were actually in the ring itself—for intergovernmental relationships. It was not so much a case of benign indifference but more a question of “prod and provoke”. It was our conviction that common frameworks could help to mend those relationships and build a stronger Union. But the prevailing political mood was in effect to make common frameworks a victim rather than an agent of positive policy, as seen particularly in relation to the internal market Act and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act. These brand-new mechanisms, these common frameworks that were invented post-Brexit for managing divergence within the internal market, were intended originally to be positive instruments for taking collaborative policy across the UK, whether that was on agriculture or health, and in so doing to draw the Union closer. That opportunity has been lost so far because they have become focused on compatible processes rather than policy. Insofar as they are successful, it is because the officials working across the four countries have made them so.

What has been lacking is political leadership, and in our final letter to Mr Gove—I completely agree with everything the noble Lord has said about the way the Cabinet Office is marginalised here—we said that the failure to provide drive and focused leadership, which would have galvanised the contribution common frameworks could make to the Union, explains why we described in our reports that common frameworks have been an unfulfilled opportunity. Indeed, we had a whole cohort of Ministers trooped in front of us—some with a better grasp than others—but they all displayed a rather cavalier attitude towards the frameworks and no real grip on what they could actually achieve. Mr Gove has disputed our arguments, of course, but he does say that he thinks the IGR reforms have created “a better overall context”. The obvious question is how; I hope the Minister can answer that.

Recently, the Interparliamentary Forum drew attention to the difficulties caused by the United Kingdom Internal Market Act—a Bill that was fought in this House, where we were able to protect the dispute resolutions of the current frameworks against being subordinated to UK legislation, which was very important—and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act, which virtually dismissed any concerns on the part of either Wales or Scotland as to how their regulatory frameworks would be impacted.

Given that the union is now more troubled, less robust and less certain about boundaries and functions, the publication of the report today, which calls on the Westminster Parliament to secure through legislation

“a duty of co-operation and parity of esteem between the governments of the UK”

is vital. I hope the Government will listen and learn from that because parity of esteem between the different cultures and conditions of the countries of the UK must be at the heart of reviving the relationships if they are not to become even more frayed.

Wales carries the burden of inherited poverty and ill health. It is an exceptional legacy. Underfunding for years means that the Welsh Government simply cannot meet the needs of Wales. The reason why that is so, and its repercussions in the context of the union, is part of the conversation that the commission has started across Wales by making recommendations about the strengthening of the union and raising options for its future. I hope the Government will listen intently to that.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I thank the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers for initiating this debate and for dedicating his interest to issues of devolution, particularly since his election to his new position. Those of us who have highlighted the difficulties faced by our devolved parliaments in recent years welcome his support and his empathy.

In October last year, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, appeared before the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place and explained how in the first 20 years of the existence of the Welsh National Assembly, now the Welsh Senedd, relationships between Welsh officials and UK government officials were cordial and positive. That was confirmed for me in a conversation with my noble friend Lady Randerson, who was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Wales Office from 2012 to 2015, in the coalition years. She recalled how, through co-operation and sheer hard graft, legislation that might have breached the Sewel convention—the convention designed to ensure that the UK legislates in devolved areas only with the consent of the devolved legislatures—was worked upon late into the night. Legislation was sometimes held up until agreement was reached between the two Governments so that legislative consent could be granted.

All that changed in 2019, with the incoming Brexit Government and their focus on a unionism that has sometimes been described as hyper-unionism and a focus on legislation intended to “bind the Union together”, whether it broke Sewel or not. Now the Sewel convention is broken almost routinely—it has been broken at least seven times in recent years—and, when the Welsh Parliament refuses legislative consent to a Bill because it encroaches on its devolved responsibility, we see that UK Ministers just go ahead and enact the legislation anyway, leading to a breakdown of relationships.

Calls for a return to more co-operative working and for regular meetings between officials of the UK and those of the devolved Governments led to the publication of the Review of Intergovernmental Relations in January 2022. I pay tribute to the work of officials of all four nations for their efforts in producing the new agreement. It was a time-consuming endeavour, and I hope it grows to be more successful over time and that there is scope to strengthen its weaknesses.

This agreement between the four nations has three tiers and appears to be working quite well at some levels. The biggest disappointment is that the Council of Ministers has met only once, when the new Prime Minister took office. Unfortunately, there was no Northern Ireland Executive to take part in that meeting to represent the voice of the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure we all hope that this issue is resolved soon. I believe that the Council of Ministers has not met since then.

The Welsh First Minister was both realistic and frank when he said he has

“an impression of a Government that knows that it is coming towards the end of the current parliamentary term and whose energy to invest in reviving intergovernmental relations is at a relatively low ebb”.

Certainly, it is becoming clear that the present system cannot be successful if the UK Government, as the major player, are not fully committed to leadership and partnership working.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, I welcome the publication today of the report by the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, which concluded that the way in which Wales is ruled is unsustainable and cannot continue because it does not provide stability or prosperity. The commission hopes that the report will act as an impetus for change for the people of Wales and, it stresses, that the conversation will continue. It presents the people of Wales with three options: enhanced devolution, a federal UK or independence. Enhanced devolution, it argues, runs the

“risk of continued relatively poor economic performance, low incomes and poverty”.

A federal UK is more complicated and would depend on greater devolution to the regions of England, which is not presently there. Independence would mean

“hard choices in the short to medium term”,

but the commission notes that

“it took Ireland … 50 years and EU membership to grow its economy to match the UK’s”.

It also calls, of course, for the Sewel convention to be legally binding.

Perhaps it is time to accept that all the work on intergovernmental relations in the UK is merely a sticking plaster unless the UK Government are completely committed to its success, and that the future lies in one of the commission’s three options. The commission does not support any one option but provides information to enable the people of Wales to come to their own conclusion. My hope is that another Government of another colour at Westminster will, in the near future, enable the change that Wales needs.

I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and congratulate him on obtaining this debate. I also thank him for his excellent analysis of what has happened over the last 10 years. I would like to follow that up with a more rough-and-tumble view of my experience over the last six years. As Professor Linda Colley said in her masterly analysis, Acts of Union and Disunion, a “policy of drift” will not lead to strength. If we look at what has happened for the past six years, when I have seen it at first hand, we are in a policy of drift.

The first phase, it seems to me, was the phase that occupied our time until our exit from the European Union. The European Union Committee produced a most able report, which said that the European Union provided much of the glue that held the union together. Nothing happened; there was drift.

We then turned to a period when I do not think there was drift—certainly not drift of a benevolent kind. It was characterised by the internal market Act, which did so much to damage relations, and by a marked reluctance to co-operate by taking the view that London knows best. That was unfortunate.

Thirdly, more recently there was a much more positive view, and I pay an especial tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, who did so much to try to change the mood. She did much to improve co-operation and to try to get the Welsh Government, who were prepared to co-operate, involved. For example, one way in which she did this was to get something sensible agreed about the mission statements in the levelling-up Bill, where those concerned seemed to have entirely forgotten, in drafting large areas of policy, that a significant number of those had been devolved. I very much hope, and this is my question for the Minister, that we will continue this. I hope that she is going to exercise the role that the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, occupied. If not, who is? There should be someone doing that in this House when there is a Welsh Government interested in co-operation, in contrast to what we have heard about the Scottish Government. Fortunately, it appears to be continuing, and we see that in some of the current clauses of the victims Bill about to begin its Committee stage.

Although I regard it as essential that we get the mood music right, there is a much deeper question. It is a great coincidence—I was going to put it down to masterly strategy, but I do not think you can achieve that in timing debates in this House—that this debate coincided with the delivery of the report of Dr Rowan Williams, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, and Professor Laura McAllister today, because I think they raise a much more important question. I want to look at it not through their lens but through a different lens, which is the lens of the union. I think we have forgotten how to make clear the purpose of the union and how we strengthen it.

It is quite obvious, when we look at powers, that there are some powers that are almost exclusively for the London Government, if I may call it that: defence and foreign policy. Even on those, there is a tiny interaction with devolved government. There are other areas. For example, one can take macroeconomic policy and right down through economic policy development, where there is an absolute need for co-operation. I think that what we lack is not merely a proper, coherent structure but a proper understanding of what our union is for, who takes the lead and how we get co-ordinated policies. One example of where this went wrong a little earlier this year was dealing with the legislation to do with standards during strikes. Had anyone properly analysed whether we wanted a situation in which the London Government took over and decided minimum standards for hospitals in Wales? Fortunately, they came to their senses and did not do this in respect of ambulances, because the statutory instrument was limited to England and did not cover Wales, but we need a more coherent view of what the union is for, analytically set out, and how the powers interrelate, instead of what we get at the moment: “It says that industrial relations are reserved; therefore, forget it”. It is a completely nonsensical policy.

What we need is not only the analysis that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, provided about the structure of the intergovernmental relations but what is behind that—an analysis of the powers of the constitution. How this is to be done, I am not sure. Maybe the Constitution Committee of this House can do it, but it is a formidable task. Maybe we could persuade the Government, or an incoming Government, to do something, or maybe one of the think tanks will take it on, but a really good starting point would be the Act of Union Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, introduced in October 2018. It set out a very simple analysis of the powers of the union. We need to build on that and build our structure on intergovernmental relationships through an analysis of the powers. But we also need good will, and I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us on this.

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, in his excellent speech, set out the history of the evolution of how the UK’s government bodies interact. He concluded with the observation, with which I agree, that it demonstrates a lack of focus on devolved matters over too many years and, even with a better structure, the challenge remains of how to use it to the advantage of our union.

Constitutions matter, but they need constant attention and occasional repair if their vitality and adaptability are to be sustained. The new intergovernmental relationship regime is a vital structural component of our union, but it will deliver only if it is accompanied by the right behaviours, culture and respect embedded within it.

The Constitution Committee observed in its 2022 report Respect and Co-operation that the shared governance of the United Kingdom requires more “respect and partnership” for the union to flourish, and that

“it must enjoy popular support in each nation, based on … common benefits accruing to all”.

The report also said:

“There has … been evidence at times of a unilateral approach to strengthening the Union, which has been insufficiently sensitive to its pluralism”


“Prime Ministers have a critical role to play in making the new intergovernmental structures a success”.

Rather than simply asserting their reach, they should seek

“strong relationships between the four administrations”

and demonstrate a sensitivity to, and an understanding and consideration of, the interests of the people and their devolved Governments.

Similarly, Whitehall’s continuing traditional centrist approach to government is further confirmed by the asymmetrical levels of engagement by departments in intergovernmental meetings, evidenced in the noble Earl’s speech. His perceptive observation of negative symbolism in the responsibility for intergovernmental relations resting with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but not captured in its title, adds to the risk of the department’s broader responsibilities undermining the sharpness this vital area deserves.

Since the introduction of devolution in the late 1990s, politics in the UK has become significantly more pluralistic and less consensual. It is unfortunate that greater progress on reforming intergovernmental structures was not achieved before the challenges of Brexit and Covid-19 demonstrated their inherent weaknesses and contributed so much to the decline in trust. Even the best governance structures may not resolve fundamental differences between Administrations, but challenges have been building up over decades, leading to a discernible atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty in popular debate. I noted the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, about the Government’s disagreements with the SNP, but that does not exempt the Government from their responsibility to the citizens of Scotland and Wales in the union.

The success of the new intergovernmental arrangements will depend on how the Government and devolved Administrations operate them, and whether they are committed to achieving shared objectives, rather than simply managing—or choosing to accentuate—their differences. Take, for example, the UK Internal Market Act, passed without the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd. The agreement reached, however, between the UK Government and devolved Administrations in response—to disapply the market access principles where the four Administrations agreed that divergence between the different parts of the UK was acceptable—was welcome. But then, sadly, we hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, that the opportunity that the common frameworks presented was never fully seized.

The Sewel convention is a fundamental part of the UK’s devolution arrangements. It provides that the UK Parliament does not normally legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the devolved legislatures. While the legislative consent procedure generally worked well from 1999, implementing Brexit placed it under great strain. At least nine Acts arising out of Brexit and impacting on devolved matters passed without consent.

We have seen the increasing use of secondary legislation by the Government to pursue policy, a concern captured in the excellent report, Democracy Denied?, by the Delegated Powers Committee. The convention does not apply to secondary legislation impacting devolved matters.

For the Sewel convention to operate well, good faith is required between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. It is undermined if the Government refuse to seek—or choose to act without taking—all reasonable steps to ensure consent. I agree that it is also undermined if devolved Administrations recommend the refusal of consent to their legislatures for purely political purposes. I ask the Minister: what steps are being taken by the Government to demonstrate their commitment to the convention, recognising the loss of trust flowing from the exceptional circumstances of the last few years?

Finally, the question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, as to whether English devolved administrations will be an equivalent part of the devolved structures within the United Kingdom, is so important. The place of the governance of England in the union should not be overlooked. Greater decentralisation could address concerns about the governance of England, which is highly centralised, with greater regional economic inequalities compared with almost all other western European countries.

A new process of English devolution began in 2014, involving bespoke deals with local authorities; 10 areas have mayoral devolution, and every part of England could have a devolution deal if it wanted one. However, what is not clear is the extent to which the current processes will actually deliver improved governance and, more importantly, improve intergovernmental relations. It is, as the noble Earl put it, an “oh so important question”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for facilitating this debate and congratulate him on his impeccable timing. As we have heard, fortuitously, today the report by the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, co-chaired by Dr Rowan Williams and Professor Laura McAllister, was published. The headlines in today’s papers in Wales are:

“Independent Wales viable, says report”.

This has become a serious option because of the manifest failings of the current devolution settlement, and the abysmal intergovernmental relationships between Westminster and Cardiff Bay. I pay tribute to all those who have worked diligently over two years to produce the report.

Having served as a Welsh constituency MP for 27 years, prior to devolution, for four years in the first National Assembly and for 12 years in this Chamber, I hope that my perspective will help this debate. As MP, I felt the frustrations of representing a Welsh constituency for which many public policies were conceived and delivered by non-elected quangos, existing to serve the needs of the UK Government, not the priorities of the people of Wales.

In the first National Assembly I saw at first hand the inadequacy of the Barnett formula, which has been recognised by a committee of this House. I saw a Labour Government at Westminster refuse to put that right and even refuse to give the Assembly the cash it received from the European Union for regional development. Only the intervention of Michel Barnier, the EU regional commissioner, persuaded Gordon Brown to pass over to the Assembly the money to which it was entitled.

One of my first battles in this Chamber was to protest at the way in which the coalition Government clawed back £400 million which the Welsh Government, to their great credit, had saved through year-end prudence: a fund intended for capital spending on schools and hospitals. The devolution settlement for Wales has not been working, it still is not, and it has to be put right.

As people increasingly see the shortcomings of the devolution settlement, more and more realise that Wales must take greater responsibility for governing itself. In 1979 there was huge uncertainty about devolution and the proposed Assembly was rejected in a referendum. By 1997, after 18 years of Tory rule, Wales voted yes by a whisker for a relatively powerless Assembly. By the 2011 referendum, there was a two-to-one majority for giving the Assembly legislative competence. Today, up to 40% of voters are sympathetic to independence: “indy-curious” is the term which has been adopted. It is not a majority, but it is a significant number.

Much of that political shift has arisen because of the way in which people in Wales perceive the UK Government as being out of sympathy with my nation’s needs. As we have heard, at the time of Brexit promises were made that the EU’s economic support would be fully replaced by Westminster—that has just not happened. There were also threadbare promises of intergovernmental co-operation.

At times, there has been little less than a disparaging attitude towards the Government elected by the people of Wales, particularly towards First Minister Mark Drakeford. That was most clearly seen at the time of the Covid lockdown. It was personalised in the behaviour of the First Minister and the Prime Minister. At the height of Covid vulnerability, Mark Drakeford camped out in his garden to minimise the danger that he would transmit Covid; at that very time, Boris Johnson was partying in Downing Street. People here fail to understand the respect this brought to our First Minister in comparison with Britain’s Prime Minister.

The stark difference we see between attitudes and values in Wales and Westminster is the most fundamental driver of the wish to go our own way. The fundamental question for this House is whether we can create a new partnership between the nations of these islands, based on maximum self-determination and mutual respect.

The commission’s report, published today, considered four main issues. The first was the challenge to democracy that we experience in Wales, as do other countries. The commission suggested that Wales has the potential to create a robustly more democratic culture. Secondly—this is particularly relevant to this debate—the commission commented that:

“The relationship between the UK Government and the devolved governments has fallen far short of the cooperation that citizens expect”.

It goes on to consider the state of intergovernmental relations and the boundaries of the Welsh devolution settlement. Thirdly, the commission identified areas in which new devolved powers are essential to protect the current settlement. All parties in this House that want to make devolution work should consider that constructively.

The commission believes that the present devolution settlement has an inherent incompatibility and vulnerability. As has been mentioned, it suggests three alternative ways forward: first, entrenching devolved powers in law and devolving the justice system, welfare, employment, broadcasting and railways; secondly, a federal system for the UK, including a written constitution; and, thirdly, the option of independence, which the commission concluded was a viable option.

The report makes 10 detailed recommendations. Of those directly relevant to this House, I will draw attention to four. Recommendation 4 states that

“Parliament should legislate for intergovernmental mechanisms so as to secure a duty of co-operation and parity of esteem between the governments of the UK”.

Recommendation 5 states that the UK Government should legislate

“to specify that the consent of the devolved institutions is required for any change to the devolved powers”.

This was the subject of my Private Member’s Bill that was passed by this House last year.

Recommendation 6 states:

“The UK Government should remove constraints on Welsh Government budget management”—

that resonates with the clawback of devolved funds that I mentioned. Finally, Recommendation 9 says:

“The UK Government should agree to the legislative and executive devolution of responsibility for justice and policing to the Senedd and Welsh Government”.

That was proposed by the Silk commission, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has addressed.

I hope that the UK Government will consider these issues positively and that the Labour Party will realise that tinkering at the margins is just not good enough. We need vision, empathy and a spirit of co-operation that is bold and confident enough to contemplate a new partnership between our four nations. I hope that people of goodwill, in all groupings in this Chamber, will open their minds to such possibilities.

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for securing this debate and for his wonderful opening speech. I will focus on some specific matters, rather than the overall architecture of intergovernmental relations, and in particular on the lowest tier of the interministerial groups that focus on specific policy areas.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, noted, we can easily get so focused on process that we do not notice that devolution has meant growing divergence. Devolution means that things have happened and I am not sure that we take enough note of this happening or build it into our relations between Governments.

No one will be surprised that an example I want to focus on is education, but I apologise for the fact that my examples will be English and Scottish, because those are the two systems that I know well. We have always had major differences in our school systems. That is not only entirely acceptable but, in theory, a source of strength, because we can look at what works in different systems and they are alike enough that one can draw some useful lessons. We do not always do that, but it is a real opportunity.

But we have to remember that the United Kingdom has a national economy. Different parts of it may have different strengths, but we have a mobile labour force and young people take it for granted that they will have the freedom to move easily around the entire UK. This starts to be relevant when we think about our professional, vocational and technical education systems. Sometimes you have to have differences—for example, legal education has to be different in Scotland—but there are areas in the older professions where we have either natural or government-mandated mechanisms to ensure adequate alignment. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges is the membership body for 24 medical royal colleges and faculties across not only the United Kingdom but Ireland, and the Nursing and Midwifery Council is UK-wide. But, once you go beyond the traditional professions, there is a surprising lack of join-up.

Ours is a world with a growing number of licences to practise. In England, we are trying very hard to revitalise apprenticeships and we have the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. But there is no formal provision for IfATE or the Scottish Qualifications Authority to take note of each other’s standards. IfATE certainly has no resources explicitly to work with the SQA on aligning training expectations. Equally, the English Government are trying to develop a range of higher technical qualifications, but I do not know of any explicit attempts to take account of the much stronger provision in Scotland of higher national diplomas, over a wide range and with a lot of experience. There might be some informal discussions but there is nothing formal. This is something we should worry about.

The other example I will use briefly is higher education, where I must declare an interest as a professor at King’s College London. Here too we have a national system that we are not taking enough note of as things diverge. We have a national system of application to university in UCAS and a national body for student loans in the Student Loans Company. Again, the systems are diverging. That might be perfectly all right, but there is an assumption among all young people in all four of our countries that they can apply to national institutions—I think UCAS is an institution—and that they will be able to move around.

There is also the research economy, which is very relevant to our economic future because, if we do not maintain real research strength in this country, our future is genuinely grim. The UK Government recognise this by funding a large research budget, and specifically by running the research excellence framework: a four-country, UK-wide exercise that provides a periodic intensive review of the quality of research provision. It has certainly been a spur to action in universities and a major source of our international reputation as a very strong provider of higher education. It is run jointly by Research England, the Scottish Funding Council, the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research in Wales, and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland. England uses it as a way to target money into high-achieving universities to ensure that a certain number have the strength to maintain an international research reputation. In England we have to target because we now have 416 registered providers of higher education compared with the, in my view, more reasonable numbers of 18 in Scotland and 11 in Wales.

Devolved Governments do not have to spend any of that money on research; it comes under the Barnett consequentials. Again, that is fine, but it is also true that divergence is increasing, which has—in quite a short term, let alone the long term—some real knock-on effects for movements of staff between universities within the United Kingdom and for the future of a joined-up national UK-wide university system.

My point is not that the London Government should take back control, but that we are not discussing those growing divergencies in any systematic way. I was therefore extremely concerned to learn that the UK Education Ministers Council met only once in 2023.

In conclusion, I echo the comments of my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, and ask the Minister if we can please have some more information on how those meetings are organised, and whether there is any systematic effort to make sure that the four Governments take note of and address divergencies that may be very fruitful, but which, when they impact on the economy of a single nation—the United Kingdom—need to be addressed consistently and in depth by all four Governments.

My Lords, I cannot recall intergovernmental relations ever being mentioned when the Cabinet committee considered devolution for Scotland and Wales in 1997. Indeed, after the elections to the Parliament and the Assembly, when I, as Welsh Secretary, had to deal with the Welsh Government, relations were very good. They were good, really, because of personal relationships. We had a Labour Government in Cardiff, a Labour Government in Scotland and a Labour Government in Westminster, so it was relatively easy for intergovernmental relations to be good.

In my case those relations were based on a telephone call to Rhodri Morgan at 10 o’clock every morning of the week. That helped things considerably, because that is how it worked. I returned to Wales after some years in Northern Ireland, and the world had changed. I was then given some responsibility for overall devolution, which meant that I had to deal with Alex Salmond. That was different. There was not a 10-minute phone call every day to Alex. There were, shall we say, challenging negotiations and discussions—always friendly, but extremely challenging. The world was beginning to change, with a separate Government in Scotland now, from Wales and from Westminster.

Of course, that was to change too, after the victories of the Conservative Government in the elections that were to follow. That is the basis of why relations have not been good. There have been different political parties in charge of those Governments, and in a way—here in Westminster and Whitehall, particularly—it was all about devolving and forgetting: devolve, and it is up to them now.

I remember many occasions in Cabinet, discussing matters such as health or education, when I reminded my colleagues gently that the issues we were discussing did not apply in the same way to the 15 million people who lived in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. That was usually met with a great yawn or a rolling of the eyes. That is dangerous, which is why it is so very important that the indifference we have seen—until recently, anyway—to intergovernmental relations has to change,

This came to the forefront in the pandemic. People suddenly realised that things were different—that there were different Governments in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, dealing differently with that terrible tragedy of the time. That led eventually to the excellent report by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, which I commend. I also commend Michael Gove for accepting most of it. There has undoubtedly been a change because of that—but it does not go far enough.

It is a coincidence that today, the Senedd in Cardiff received the report of the commission in Wales on the constitution, led by Rowan Williams and Laura McAllister. That is such an important report in the context of what we are discussing today. In it, they talk about why things have gone so badly. There has been virtually no prime ministerial engagement whatever with these intergovernmental relations issues—including, incidentally, in Northern Ireland, but that is for another day. There have been poor commitments from Ministers, as well as a huge turnover of Ministers, which does not help. The recommendations of the Welsh commission and indeed the simultaneous recommendations of the commission I sat on with Gordon Brown, on the British constitution, are to be welcomed. Whoever wins the next election has to look very carefully at how we deal with these internal relations in the United Kingdom.

Both commissions recommend a statutory council—in Gordon Brown’s words, a

“Council for the Nations and Regions”.

Both commissions talk about the need for parity of esteem, which has gone. It is a phrase we used in Northern Ireland a great deal in setting up the Good Friday agreement, but it applies also to how we look at each other in terms of our nations within the United Kingdom. It is a recognition of a new political landscape but also that better relations between the Governments means strengthening the union rather than the opposite, which is so hugely significant.

The other issue I want to touch on briefly is a parallel arrangement in the United Kingdom that was set up by strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement: relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom. There is the British-Irish Council, which has come to life a bit now—it went into atrophy for some years, but it is better now. However, most particularly I want to refer to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, on which Members of this House have served for a number of years. That brings together the Parliaments of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey. It does remarkably good work, often unannounced. For example, I am currently sitting on an inquiry into security between these islands. In a way, that is a model of how to deal with relations between our Parliaments. However, it is not just about the Parliaments but the Governments of the United Kingdom and the need to strengthen our union. Whatever happens in the election, that must be a priority.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for this debate, and I think we probably all agree that good intergovernmental relationships are desired. On a very personal note, it is 50 years today since I arrived in this country. I grew up and was born in a federal state that had a written constitution and a second Chamber which represents the component states of the federal state—and they are still arguing. Therefore, all these things are not a panacea; but the fact that we are having the debates is the really important thing.

I want to talk about an issue in respect of which, although Wales and Scotland have the powers to exercise a particular function, they have chosen not to, and that is the Civil Service. I declare an interest as the current First Civil Service Commissioner. The arrangements in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which sets out a legal requirement that the appointment of civil servants in England, Scotland and Wales must be made on merit and after fair and open competition, are important. Northern Ireland has separate arrangements; nevertheless, some 4,550 UK civil servants work in Northern Ireland.

Working from London, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that significant differences exist. A number of speakers referred to that, and particularly to the time during Covid when it became apparent that things were done differently. However, they were done differently for very good reasons, either because of the priorities of local populations or because the demands were different. We so quickly forgot that doing things differently in different parts of the United Kingdom is not a bad thing; it is a good thing if we use it as an opportunity to learn from each other. However, this will not happen if there is no trust and no common agreed standards and shared understandings. In addition, comparable data is very important. I caution against divergence when we start gathering data on different bases and different assumptions, because that divides us in a way that is not helpful to anyone.

UK civil servants, whether they work in London, Edinburgh, Belfast or Cardiff, are all subject to the provisions of CRaG, which involves the Civil Service Code recruitment principles, but there are provisions for divergence, and there is a requirement for consultation. Just to put this in context, in Wales, there are 38,655 UK civil servants; in Scotland, there are 53,495; and in England, there are 416,850. As I said, although the arrangements in Northern Ireland are different, there are still over 4,000 UK civil servants there.

The Civil Service Commission chairs all the interviewing panels for directors-general, Permanent Secretaries and the majority of director posts. In 2022-23, we chaired 229 of these competitions, of which three were for the Scottish Government and seven for the Welsh Government. We take our role as regulators incredibly seriously and would argue that we have a unique vantage point of ensuring that consistently high standards of quality across the UK Civil Service are maintained.

We also have a system of linked commissioners, where major departments as well as Scotland and Wales have a dedicated commissioner. They work with Permanent Secretaries, advise on issues and share good practice. Our current Scottish linked commissioner is Paul Gray, who was the chief executive of NHS Scotland and director-general of health and social care. We are currently in the process of recruiting additional commissioners, and I very much hope that we will be able to identify at least one new commissioner with an understanding and experience of Wales.

In the last few days, the Civil Service Code, which is rarely spoken about in political debate, has gained some attention. As the Civil Service Commission ultimately deals with complaints brought by civil servants regarding conduct that is thought to conflict with the Civil Service Code, I thought it might be helpful just to remind everybody of its basis. CRaG is very clear: there must be a Civil Service Code. There may be separate codes of conduct covering civil servants who serve the Scottish Executive or the Welsh Assembly Government, but, before publishing a code, or any revision of the code, the Minister must consult the First Ministers of both Scotland and Wales.

No Administration in the UK, or any of the devolved Administrations can deliver their priorities unless they are supported by a strong and competent Civil Service. Therefore, I expect our UK civil servants to get experience working in all parts of the UK. Moving in and out enriches not only the individual’s professional experience but benefits the Administrations they serve. I would argue that no director-general or Permanent Secretary should be appointed unless they have some experience in one of the devolved Administrations or our big local authorities. At the moment, this happens in some cases, but it really does not happen enough.

I have one curious little anecdote which I picked up when I chaired a competition in Scotland. There was the observation that London-based civil servants who are used to dealing with single large departments probably do not prepare enough when they are applying for jobs in Scotland and Wales because they do not appreciate the nature of the difference and the breadth of experience they have to bring to the job. They would enrich their own experience by moving in and out of Whitehall in regular patterns.

With all this in mind, I assure the Minister and the House that the Civil Service Commission will continue to play its role in ensuring strong intergovernmental relations based on a UK-wide Civil Service. As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, put it so nicely, it helps with the creaks and groans of the current arrangements.

My Lords, in winding up his speech, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, said that what we needed was constitutional stability. We have not had it for the last five years. We have had intense constitutional instability, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, keeps reminding us in his latest book. Effective government will not survive unless we have some quite serious constitutional change within the next five to 10 years. I look to the next Government to be a great deal less cautious about attacking some of these major issues of our constitutional weaknesses and engaging in constitutional change on a cross-party, consultative basis to make sure that we try to get some of this right.

We need constitutional, doctrinal and cultural change. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was honed by AV Dicey as part of his campaign opposing Irish home rule. He said that the Imperial Parliament was always right and there could be only one centre of power, thus Irish home rule and devolution were impossible and had to be got over. Post Brexit, we heard the doctrine of indivisible parliamentary sovereignty being put out very strongly. This doctrine includes the idea that local government is simply an agent of central government—Michael Gove clearly believes this completely—and that local and regional democracy are not an important part of our democratic life.

We need cultural change because, as a number of noble Lords have said, we need parity of esteem and to take seriously those working at a lower level. Multi-level government is something we have to learn, and which is foreign to a great deal of the way in which British and Imperial government has operated in the last 150 years. I would remind the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, that one of the advantages of being within the multi-level government system of the European Union was that our universities, many of which had been really quite parochial, learned about foreign partnerships. We moved towards a degree of convergence across Europe in the structure of degrees because we were part of that broader complex. We have to learn a different approach to politics.

I thought it would be helpful if I spoke as a Yorkshireman, and as someone who has been involved all my life with politics in Yorkshire, about the problem of England and of English regions. I was walking back from Millbank just before this debate with a Yorkshire Conservative MP. He was talking about our common approach in asking for a Yorkshire regional entity, and saying how Gove and others had pushed us back on it. It was very much an all-party approach—from local council leaders, MPs and others in Yorkshire. It was pushed back, so we now have a North Yorkshire Council which has had imposed upon it as a condition of the regional deal a North Yorkshire elected mayor, for which there are already five candidates. On the first past the post system, it is quite possible that the new mayor will be elected with no more than about a third of the vote. Of course, the mayor will not just represent North Yorkshire; he or she will represent York, which was kept out of North Yorkshire because it was either under Liberal Democrat or Labour control and therefore not to be included in Conservative North Yorkshire.

Yorkshire is a mess. There is no ward representative on the new North Yorkshire Council who takes more than two hours to drive from his or her home to county council meetings. I remind noble Lords that Yorkshire is the largest county in England, with a population equivalent to that of Scotland. It has no voice to speak for it in London.

The problem of England—it is also a problem of the devolution settlement that we already have because England is so dominant in it and English Ministers so often forget about the relevance of the other devolved authorities—has to be faced. I hope that, whatever new Government we have, we will at last grasp the need for a coherent approach to regional and local government within England.

Incidentally, that will also begin to resolve the problem of the overconcentration of civil servants in London. I can remember when the West Riding authority had a substantial education department, because it ran its own education. Education is now controlled very clearly from London. I can remember when there was a regional centre of government in Leeds. If you pull these things back, civil servants will spend more of their careers—at the very least some of them—working outside of London. That is a much better way of ensuring that we have a thriving democracy.

I welcome the Dunlop review, which was entirely right to say that what we need is one senior Cabinet Minister responsible for intergovernmental relations. I remember the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which, in effect, did some of this. I am not persuaded that we still need, in a Cabinet of 33—that is already too large to be an effective decision-making body—three separate Secretaries of State for devolved powers.

Incidentally, we have not talked about the British-Irish Council in all this. It was originally part of the way in which we dealt with the devolved Administrations, the Government of Ireland and the Crown dependencies, which we always forget about. It seems to me that, in some way or other, we need to grapple in the next Parliament with the question of what exactly the role and responsibilities of the Crown dependencies are. As we have recently learned, a number of Members of this House keep their financial interests there for tax-efficient reasons. As such, the question of the Crown dependencies’ relationship with the UK is one that a committee of this House might like to examine.

Where do we go from here? It seems to me that the task of the next Government is to grapple with this issue, partly because levelling up has clearly not succeeded. I feel resentment from the people I meet in Yorkshire about the failure of levelling up, as well as about the promises made by Boris Johnson and others. The thought that we would have begun to have improved infrastructure and greater finance for local authority action has been disappointed.

We would be much better off if we had the formal arguments that we see in Germany about fiscal federalism, which means dividing up the regional impact of the national budget. We would then begin to talk about it, rather than saying, “Oh well, there’s the Barnett formula, which is automatic”, then forgetting about the regions of England. Considering that part of fiscal federalism would be provision for a second Chamber in which there would be regional representation, it could be part of the way in which we might make the weaknesses of our system of government rather less awful than they have been. In a sense, we are half way towards a federal system. We need to go a little further in that respect. I would welcome an open discussion about the regional distribution of public spending, rather than the empty promises that Boris Johnson made, which have led to so much disillusion in the north, the south-west and elsewhere.

We certainly need to restore local democracy in England. It has been dreadfully weakened. As we all know, a number of local councils are likely to go bankrupt in the next year or two. That matters. We know from public opinion polls that public trust in local democracy is higher than public trust in national democracy. Incidentally, we also know that public trust in Westminster politics has fallen below 10%—the lowest it has yet hit. This ought to worry all of us in both Houses very considerably.

We need to strengthen intergovernmental machinery, as a number of noble Lords have said. We need regular ministerial attendance and to develop, as the Lords Constitution Committee said, a modern form of shared government which is fully understood at all levels of government. There are indeed many other areas of constitutional reform which a new Government should take in, but that perhaps will wait for a future debate.

My Lords, as a proud Lancastrian it is a pleasure to follow a Yorkshireman, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire—although he did say that Yorkshire is a mess, which was an interesting statement. I was looking at the noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne, a fine Lancashire man, for solidarity.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for securing this debate and introducing it in such an eloquent manner. I thank noble Lords from across the House for making informative and useful contributions, many of which came from great expertise and experience. This debate is timely, and there are numerous questions and concerns that the Government need to address.

Since 1998, intergovernmental relations have been an important yet understudied part of the United Kingdom’s new machinery of government, once described by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as the “hidden wiring” of the UK’s territorial constitution. The King’s Speech late last year promised to promote the integrity of the union and to strengthen the social fabric of the United Kingdom. This can be achieved only through a strong working relationship between the nations and regions of the UK. Unfortunately, the Government have often ridden roughshod over devolved Governments, leaving the union less stable and less secure than ever before.

Working in co-operation is always better than conflict, and we need the structures and institutions of shared government to drive this forward. Each part of the UK should have an equal and respected voice in decision-making, giving those responsible for delivery the freedom to innovate. While the specific policy solutions may vary across the regions and nations of our country, the UK also needs an underlying vision and a Government who are prepared to work in partnership with devolved Governments and local leaders to achieve this—a point which so many noble Lords across this House have made in this debate.

Today, as we speak, we are witnessing 100,000 people striking in Northern Ireland, with no indication of the formation of an Executive, and the deadline to achieve this being midnight tonight. What update can the Minister provide on the situation in Northern Ireland? What preparations are the Government making to address the situation? Do the Government foresee a new election in Northern Ireland? When can we have a functioning Northern Ireland Government? Can we have an update on this situation?

Northern Ireland’s involvement in the new intergovernmental relations structures has been impacted by the absence of a fully functioning Executive or Assembly since February 2022. We understand that senior civil servants have been attending intergovernmental review meetings in the absence of ministerial representation. Their attendance at ministerial meetings is in an observational capacity. What impact are these observers having on intergovernmental relations? The noble Baroness, Lady Stuart of Edgbaston, made a point about the great work that civil servants are doing in different parts of the devolved Governments, but what impact are they having here, as observers? After the intergovernmental review, a new structure was established in January 2022, providing ambitious and effective working to support our Covid recovery, tackle the climate change crisis and inequalities, and deliver sustainable growth. How can this be achieved when there is observer status in Northern Ireland? How can you have dialogue, strategy and sustainability discussions when there is only observation from one particular side?

What is the Minister’s response to the Welsh and Scottish Governments’ view that progress and momentum in implementing the new ways of working and mechanisms agreed as part of the view were slower than anticipated? The Welsh Government said that this was because of

“the instability of the UK government over this period and frequent UK ministerial changes”—

a point that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, also referred to.

We note that the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales was taking evidence and its report has been launched, as mentioned today by the noble Lord. What is the progress on evaluating recent practice in terms of meeting the intentions set out in the review and is the new machinery being used to operate a partnership approach?

The commission’s report was published today. It also talks about the “fragility of intergovernmental relations” as one of the “pressure points” of devolution, and states:

“The machinery for inter-governmental relations operates at the discretion of the UK government, and its reduced engagement in recent years has coincided with its willingness to override conventions”.

I refer noble Lords to the operation of the Sewel convention, particularly in Wales, whereby the consent of the Senedd is required for UK Bills that impact on devolved powers, which is of concern to the Welsh Government. In Wales, the Government reported late engagement from Bill teams in the UK Government and a reluctance to share information and drafting, and called these

“symptoms of a disregard for the legitimate interest the Welsh Government and Senedd have in UK legislation which touches on devolved issues”.

UK Bills introduced during 2022 that the Senedd refused consent to include the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill, the Procurement Bill and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. The UK Government has ignored the Senedd’s refusal of consent, in breach of the Sewel convention. In 2023, the Welsh Government also recommended that consent be withheld in relation to the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the Illegal Migration Bill and the majority of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.

At a recent meeting of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, the Counsel General was asked to comment on Sewel in relation to the new dispute resolution process, which a number of noble Lords have referred to. He said:

“The crux of the problem with Sewel is … the lack of codification of Sewel—the lack of clarity as to what it means, and the diverse ways in which it is treated”.

These disputes are problematic and

“ultimately, a political process of a constitutional disagreement that doesn’t have a real justiciable status”

is not enough.

The new dispute resolution mechanism introduced after the intergovernmental relations review is still relatively untested—a point that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, mentioned at the start of his speech. The Senedd research service noted that a dispute between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Treasury appeared to be the only known use of the new dispute procedure so far. Can the Minister outline where else the dispute mechanism has been used and the nature of any dispute?

We have heard some excellent contributions across the House, and recurrent themes have been highlighted during the debate. I conclude by agreeing with what the UK Government said in September last year:

“The need for effective intergovernmental relations … has never been greater”.

This is understood to be in light of Brexit, Covid-19, climate change and international conflict. However, the lack of stability at the heart of the UK has been detrimental to intergovernmental relations. In practice, implementation of proposals has been disrupted by such instability. Does the Minister agree that having five UK Prime Ministers in the space of seven years, and constant reshuffles, has had a negative impact on effective intergovernmental collaboration?

The noble Baroness opposite mentioned the three-tier structure, as well as giving a very strong perspective in relation to Scotland. How is the three-tier system working, and what are the operational issues with this?

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, that this cannot be dealt with by a sticking plaster approach. We need a stable and sustainable approach—a point that my noble friend Lady Andrews talked about. The theme and message for me is the phrase used by my noble friend Lord Murphy when he said that parity of esteem is needed. Better relationships between the Governments will eventually strengthen the union.

In concluding, I say that respect, good will, strong relationships and shared objectives across our nations are needed now and, unfortunately, they are missing from the Government’s approach. I look forward to hearing the noble Baroness’s reply.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for securing this important debate. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions. As the noble Earl and others have said, this is a timely debate and many noble Lords have said that that is because of the publication today of the report by the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not comment on that report. Not only is it hot off the press but, as it was commissioned by the Welsh Government, it is for them to respond in the first instance.

However, I of course acknowledge that many of the issues that we are discussing today and have heard about in this debate cross over with the issues discussed in that report, which is relevant and significant to our debate today. Our debate is also timely because this year we celebrate 25 years since the four Governments of the United Kingdom started to work together under the umbrella known as “intergovernmental relations” and we are two years into the new arrangements for those arrangements, so it is a good opportunity to take stock.

Every week, we see Ministers and officials across the United Kingdom and its Government work together, formally and informally, to tackle shared challenges. That might be through the forums established through the 2022 intergovernmental relations review or through new initiatives that the UK Government have brought forward, such as the Islands Forum, where Governments are able to discuss directly the range of issues that are important to island communities, or, as referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, as part of our commitments across these islands—for example, through the British-Irish Council, which brings together the Governments of the UK and the devolved Governments with those of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, which recently held its 40th summit. That focused on the theme of transforming children’s lives and celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

There is good ongoing policy co-operation and exchange taking place between the Administrations as part of that council, including on housing, energy security, renewables, the environment and the early years. That continues to be an important part of intergovernmental relations and the different ways in which we continue to engage across the UK and beyond.

Indeed, between January and September 2023, as regards intergovernmental relations, there were over 150 ministerial meetings between the UK Government and the devolved Governments, covering topics including the economy, energy, net zero, the environment, health and trade, to name but a few, and taking place in, among other places, the 16 ministerial groups that we have set up. As we have heard from noble Lords across the Chamber today, that is what the people of this country rightly want and expect: for their Governments to work together on the issues that matter to them, their families and their communities.

We have heard on occasion from the Front Benches opposite about how rosy things were in the early years of the devolution settlement in terms of relations between the different Governments before a period of decline. It will not surprise noble Lords to hear that the analysis is not one that is shared by this Government, but I fully acknowledge some of the challenges brought by some of the big constitutional questions we have faced, such as Brexit, which we have had to navigate across our nations in recent years.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, illustrated quite well why relations were so rosy in those early years when there was a Labour Government as the UK Government, in Scotland and in Wales and how things shifted, even with a Labour Government in Westminster, with an SNP Government in Scotland. It is important to acknowledge, as my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie did so well, that, when you have Governments with fundamentally different or opposing views of our constitutional arrangements and the operation of devolution or its existence, and who may have an incentive to pursue differences, relations between those Governments can be more challenging.

I will emphasise two things in that context. First, the test for intergovernmental relations, and whether they are effective or not, is whether they can help navigate those differences, not just operate when everyone is of the same view or political persuasion. We have sought to build that in the new arrangements in place today. I think they are a good basis for that. Secondly, I do not want to overestimate or overemphasise the points of difference or difficulty we have in intergovernmental relations; we in this Chamber and elsewhere focus on where they are tested and challenged most acutely, but we should not overlook the day-to-day work and co-ordination done by civil servants and Ministers on a range of shared interests across our nations. We should look at the challenges and how we can improve our operation across those, but we have heard about the importance of, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, the good will that is brought to these discussions. I think that remains true in the vast majority of intergovernmental relations today. We should not lose sight of that, even where you have Administrations of different political persuasions.

I turn to the question from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on how the Department for Levelling Up tries to ensure full engagement by all Whitehall departments in this process and what constitutes an IGR meeting. We have a network of senior responsible owners across government, and he referred to our commitment to transparency reporting, which equips DLUHC to hold other departments to account. He pointed to the difference in the frequency of formal engagement; that is partly guided by the nature of the relevant department’s work—for example, the extent to which it works in areas which are largely reserved or devolved. It is also important not to lose sight of the fact that much engagement also happens at an official level. In terms of what constitutes an intergovernmental meeting, it is where Ministers from among the four Governments, but not necessarily every Government, meet. Our transparency dashboard allows you to see the number of different IGR meetings per quarter, whether it is through the structure of the IMG or a bilateral, trilateral or quadrilateral meeting. The 28 meetings that DLUHC held covered the breadth of the department’s responsibilities, which, as we have heard, are significant.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, made some good points about the need for co-ordination across education —even where it is a devolved area, to respond to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, about the importance of not devolving and forgetting but continuing to work with each other. She is absolutely right that the last meeting of the UK Education Ministers Council was in June 2023. I understand that the Department for Education is liaising with its devolved counterparts on the next IMG meeting; this is to be chaired by the Scottish Government and arranged by them in line with the rotating chair arrangements that they have in place. But the points she made about co-ordination in this space were well made.

The noble Earl also asked about the secretariat that we have in place and whether it has full-time, dedicated staff, which indeed it does. At this point, it is comprised of officials from the UK Government and the Scottish Government. We look forward to the Welsh Government assigning a member of staff in due course. Decisions on the Northern Ireland Executive assigning a member of staff will be taken once the Executive are restored.

Of course, we measure the success of our approach not by the number of meetings held but by the outcomes they deliver. Through the renewed structures of our joint approach to intergovernmental relations, we have supported tangible benefits across our union. We have supported the economy by unlocking two green freeports in Scotland and two freeports in Wales, which between them will attract £15 billion of investment and create around 95,000 new high-skilled jobs. It is how we are delivering two investment zones in Wales—Cardiff and Newport, and Wrexham and Flintshire—with each zone set to attract £80 million over five years.

It is also how we have supported some of the landmark events in our country’s recent history, from the Platinum Jubilee to the state funeral of the late Queen and last year’s Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. Governments have necessarily worked closely together to keep people safe and ensure that everyone can come together to mark these significant national events. They build on successes that we have had over a number of years in sporting collaborations, from hosting the UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow in August to plans jointly to host the UK and Ireland Euro 2028 tournament.

We have shown through collaboration our support to some of the world’s biggest challenges. For example—I believe the Scottish Government also cite this—following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK Government, working with the devolved Governments, created the ground-breaking Homes for Ukraine scheme, which ensured that Ukrainians could find a safe home and refuge in the UK. We were able to deliver COP 26 in Glasgow only through a joint determination to create a safe and secure environment for the world to come together. More recently, we have worked closely with the devolved Governments to improve the health of future generations through a joint UK-wide consultation on creating a smoke-free generation and tackling youth vaping and the harm that it can cause.

However, as I acknowledged earlier, that is not to say there have not been significant challenges in working across governmental and administrative boundaries where Governments have varying priorities. Taking note of intergovernmental relations within the UK demands that we recognise this, and making the system work requires not just one Government or Administration but all four working together maturely, as citizens of the United Kingdom rightly expect.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, asked about the dispute resolution mechanism. The devolved Governments and the UK Government continue to work to resolve issues at the lowest possible level. The noble Lord, Lord Khan, is correct that the dispute resolution mechanism has been engaged once to date between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, in relation to a scheme setting out the payment of pensions to persons who sustained injuries because of Troubles-related incidents. That dispute is currently on pause due to the Executive’s absence.

The noble Earl asked whether a dispute was raised in relation to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. No dispute was raised but ministerial discussions took place between Administrations, as the noble Earl acknowledged, on the UK Government’s concern about how the proposed legislation would interact with reserved powers. The Secretary of State for Scotland’s decision to use the power in Section 35 was about the legislation’s consequences for the operation of Great Britain-wide equalities protections and other reserved matters. The courts were clear that the order was lawful and appropriate. However, the noble Earl is right that we will always seek to reflect when we have these moments of disagreement and see where we can learn lessons to make sure that we can handle them in the best possible way in future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, raised the work on common frameworks. I take this opportunity to thank her for her crucial work in chairing the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee and to pay tribute to the work of that committee and the contribution it has made to the effective delivery of that programme.

I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, will not mind me quoting her slightly more positive assessment of these frameworks in her letter to the Secretary of State, where she said:

“the Frameworks have proven to be robust, innovative, and unique sources of collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved governments”.

I of course acknowledge that it was immediately followed by the point which she made in this debate: the committee’s view is that

“Common Frameworks remain an ‘unfulfilled opportunity’”.

While I acknowledge to her that the programme has evolved since its conception, as has the political environment in which the frameworks operate, it is also true that the framework outline agreement necessarily focuses on ways of working and governance processes required to enable the productive discussions about policy. In many areas, though, those processes are beginning to bear fruit and be used to develop UK-wide approaches. For example, the resources and waste framework was used to agree the joint consultation on banning wet wipes containing plastic across the UK, as published in October, so the programme has evolved since its conception. More time may have been spent on setting up the processes than we originally envisaged, but those processes are also beginning to bear fruit.

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and others including the noble Baronesses, Lady Humphreys and Lady Drake, also raised the impact of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. While the frameworks were, prior to the Act, the primary means of managing the internal market, the fact that they now share this space with the Act does not undermine the common frameworks. The Act works in tandem with the common frameworks, with at least three-quarters of the frameworks covering policy areas with regulation in scope of UKIM principles. Where a common framework is used to agree a common regulatory approach, UKIM principles do not apply, incentivising joint working.

The Government do not view UKIM as altering the devolved settlements. Individual legislatures retain the ability to make regulations in areas where they have competence and the devolved Administrations are able to make and enforce regulations within their own jurisdiction. Yes, the Act establishes the market access principles, which ensure that regulations made in one nation do not affect intra-UK trade by creating internal trade barriers, but should the UK Government and a devolved Administration agree that a specific regulation should be excluded from the application of those principles, there exists a process by which to do so. It is worth remembering the importance of the UK internal market. For example, in Scotland, 60% of outgoing trade is with the rest of the UK—more than its trade with the rest of the world combined.

Many noble Lords also raised the Sewel convention. We remain absolutely committed to the Sewel convention and to working with devolved Governments on all Bills that engage the legislative consent process. It has been necessary to legislate without the consent of the devolved legislatures in only a small number of cases. As noble Lords have referenced, these largely related to legislation on EU exit and the implementation of new trade deals. In the vast majority of cases, we have legislated with consent. The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, referred to the efforts made by previous Governments to secure legislative consent. I say to her and others that, in the Bills I have worked on which have engaged legislative consent Motions, similar efforts have been made to secure that legislative consent. I hope that reassures noble Lords.

I share the praise of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, for my colleague, my noble friend Lady Bloomfield and the energy she brought to advocating for Wales’s interests. She has of course been replaced in that role by my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower, who will continue in his work; we also have our colleagues my noble friends Lord Caine and Lord Offord, in their respective Northern Ireland and Scottish roles. It is the role of all Ministers across government to ensure that we consider properly the role of devolution and the devolved Administrations when it comes to policy-making. We have had a bit of a discussion about where responsibly for this lies in government. I urge noble Lords not to focus too much on the name of a particular department, but I have seen first-hand the energy and commitment that the Secretary of State in DLUHC brings to his role as Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs, not just in the work of DLUHC but in encouraging and galvanising action across government.

I am conscious that I am slightly short of time. The noble Earl called for an annual debate in both Houses. That would of course be for the leadership of both Houses, but I will make representations and refer to the debate that we have had today. He also referred to the Canadian model and other models. The Government did look at international comparisons as part of the IGR review, including speaking to officials in Canada, and we will continue to focus on how we can make these arrangements most effective, including learning from other nations.

As for the Northern Ireland elections, the restoration of the Executive is of course a top priority, and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, is right that the deadline is the end of today. I do not have a further update to give to the House at this stage.

I will draw my remarks to a close so that we can hear from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull.

It remains for me to thank everyone who has taken part in this extremely interesting and wide-ranging debate. There were a lot of things that were completely new to me, including everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart, said, and I feel improved, so thank you very much. I was going to say that every fibre of my body felt that it was a good debate, but I cannot feel my toes, because of the temperature, so that would not have been truthful.

I must say that, as ever, the Minister gave a very thorough and helpful response, and I thank her for that. Time meant that she did not get to the English devolution point, and I hope she will not mind writing to everyone about that, because there was considerable interest. I also thank the Leader and the Whips’ Office who, for special reasons, made a big effort to help get this debate on, and I am very grateful for that.

I have two more thank yous. The first is to the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. It has done this House a tremendous service over a long time, and I will not get the chance to express my personal thanks for that, but I have had an up-close and personal look at it over the years and it is really a work of tremendous quality and depth, so thank you. The other is to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and the Constitution Committee, which carries a proud flame on this issue. Rereading the two Constitution Committee reports, which I reread in preparation for this, you see how it keeps a watchful eye on this area, and I am grateful to both noble Baronesses for speaking in the debates so clearly.

I thought there were a few themes that came through. First, there was the theme of the two-way street: it is not just the Whitehall Government who need to work at this but all the Governments. Everyone benefits if it works properly. Secondly, we have quite a good structure at the moment, and it is important that we use it. Although we heard good words from the Minister about its use, there are things, such as the Prime Minister not really turning up to meetings that are planned once a year, that show that the use is not fully there yet, and we do need to use this structure. In fact, we need to work at our union, with, as the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, said, the occasional repair—I thought that was a very good way of putting it. We need to work at it, and that includes everyone in this Chamber, everyone who is in government and all the equivalent people in the devolved areas of our nation.

We desperately need to build the interpersonal relationships. The interesting thing is that in the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly—something that I had a lot to do with; I do not go to it any more, because I do other things—those have become extremely warm now and it can get things done, and that is simply by getting people into a room and getting the relationship going. I loved the expression “parity of esteem”, which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and the noble Lords, Lord Murphy and Lord Wallace, produced: I think that is a very good way of putting it. We need to work towards that, but thank you very much and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.