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House of Lords Hansard
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Devolved Administrations
25 March 2019
Volume 796

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what new proposals they are considering to facilitate co-decision making on United Kingdom matters between the Government and the devolved administrations.

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My Lords, the UK Government and devolved Administrations are working together to develop common frameworks in policy areas where powers returning from the EU intersect with devolved competence and where we need to continue working together following EU exit. We are also carrying out a joint review of intergovernmental relations with the devolved Administrations, considering both the principles and machinery that underpin relations and how they can facilitate the best relationships possible for the future.

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I hope that that will have a positive outcome, but will the Minister take note of a publication today by the Institute for Government entitled Ministers Reflect on Devolution? If so, he will note the frustration expressed by Ministers of all parties about the relationship between devolved and UK Ministers. Given that the UK is now in effect a quasi-federal state, is it not time for a more fundamental review of how the devolved Administrations can genuinely be part of UK decision-making, even considering a royal commission and the possible role of qualified majority voting?

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I understand the frustration to which the noble Lord refers: that was reflected in our debate earlier this year initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane. After that, I undertook to communicate with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who wrote back to try to allay those concerns, and a copy has been placed in the Library. The review to which I referred is a joint review and can make progress only if it is agreed by all four parties. The noble Lord suggested the heavy guns of a royal commission; I think some nimble light artillery might be better focused to address the issue.

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My Lords, when did UK Ministers last meet Welsh Assembly Ministers, and when do the Government intend to reply to the severe criticism made by our Delegated Powers Committee last October of the Agriculture Bill now before Parliament, which sought to bypass the devolved legislatures—or are the Government blind to the fact that the devolved Administrations are now part of our constitution?

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A top priority for the Government is the constitutional integrity of the UK, and that is secured by a good working relationship between all four Governments. I accept that the intergovernmental architecture underpinning that relationship needs buttressing, and that is why we are undertaking the review that I mentioned. As for meetings, as the noble and learned Lord will know, there is a plenary JMC, a European one, a EU negotiations one and a ministerial forum. They are meeting regularly. The ministerial forum last met in February. The JMC on EU negotiations also met in February. Perhaps I could write to him on the specific issue that he raised about the DPRRC.

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My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that in the context of the current European negotiations, there was considerable dismay in Cardiff—and, I think, in Edinburgh as well—when there were reports that Northern Ireland may be given a special seat at the table when discussions are going on? Will he assure us that all the devolved Governments will be treated on an even-handed basis in such matters?

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The Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants all the devolved Administrations to have an enhanced role in the next stage of the negotiations with the EU as we move forward, I hope, after exit. I know of no plans to give preferential treatment to one devolved Administration over another.

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My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the devolved Administrations are consulted on both rolled-over and new trade agreements before they are initialled?

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I refer my noble friend to the answer I gave when she asked me about future trade agreements. The Prime Minister has promised an enhanced role. Official discussions are taking place to bring some definition to that, but I shall certainly take on board my noble friend’s request that they should be involved in trade negotiations, which of course include many of their vital interests—particularly, say, fisheries in Scotland.

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My Lords, the Minister mentioned a case for intergovernmental negotiations, but does he see a case for inter-parliamentary negotiations so that parliaments and assemblies get a role, and to find a way of feeding the regions of England into this?

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The noble Baroness raises a good point. The review I referred to is about intergovernmental relationships, not inter-parliamentary ones. If the parliaments want to take action independently of government to build up closer relationships, I see no reason why they should not.

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My Lords, will my noble friend and Her Majesty’s Government take particular care in drafting the necessary secondary legislation for the Brexit process, while having particular regard to the Welsh Assembly, which made some complaints on this?

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I recognise the particular role my noble friend has when it comes to statutory instruments, and I can give him that assurance.

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My Lords, the Minister has already been asked about what has happened to the English regions. Now that we have a rather privileged relationship for the three national assemblies, is devolution to the English regions stuck? In Yorkshire we have made very detailed proposals for a One Yorkshire scheme. The Minister for the Northern Powerhouse suggested that we had to accept four city regions for Yorkshire or nothing, in spite of the fact that there is no city in one of those four proposed regions.

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Devolution is England is not stuck. I spend many hours in the Moses Room dealing with statutory instruments, either setting up combined authorities, where local authorities wish to combine, or local mayors, who will shortly be elected, so we are making good progress in devolving power from Westminster to the local authorities.

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My Lords, is the notion that Northern Ireland is a special case somehow inevitable as there is no devolved Administration in operation? Is that the rationale that the Minister is pointing to?

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A priority for the UK Government is to restore the devolved institutions in Stormont. In the absence of Executive Ministers, there is a limit to the decisions which the civil servants in Northern Ireland can take. That is why last November the Secretary of State issued guidance on decision-making for Northern Ireland during the period for Northern Ireland Executive formation. In the meantime, we are taking such steps as we can to develop a common framework, but there does come a point where you cannot make much more progress without prejudicing the freedom of Northern Ireland to do what it wants.