Skip to main content

Union with Scotland

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to strengthen the union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of the union. The UK is a family of nations that share social, cultural and economic ties that together make us far safer, more secure and more prosperous. As we have seen throughout the Covid crisis, it is the economic strength of the union and our commitment to the sharing and pooling of resources that has supported jobs and businesses throughout Scotland. It is the strength of our union that will enable us to rebuild our economy following this crisis.

Why are the Government, composed of members of the Conservative and Unionist Party, with a self-proclaimed Minister for the Union at its head, not making the case for the union with vigour and conviction as a possibly landmark Scottish election approaches? What are the specific recommendations in the as yet unpublished Dunlop report on the union, which are now apparently being implemented, as I was told in a Written Answer given on 5 October? How will they help strengthen our great but seriously imperilled union?

The message behind my noble friend’s Question is that we must do more to ensure that Scottish people see and understand the benefits of being part of one of the most successful partnerships of nations. The Prime Minister has created the Cabinet Committee on Union Policy Implementation, which will drive forward the message that Scotland benefits directly from the UK shared prosperity fund, for example. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dunlop, many of whose recommendations we are implementing. The Government have committed to publishing the review in due course, and before the end of the year, we hope alongside the successful conclusion of our joint review of intergovernmental relations.

Does the Minister agree with Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, that

“we need to deliver formal representation for our nations and regions”

in a reformed House of Lords? Does he think that such a step would help to strengthen relationships within the United Kingdom?

I will not be drawn into commenting on that, but I will use this opportunity to say that we strongly believe that Scotland should remain, and is better off remaining, within the UK. So much comes from south of the border, such as delivering growth deals at a cost of £1.5 billion to every part of Scotland, preparing trade deals across the world, establishing at least one free port in Scotland, improving transport links and holding COP 26.

My Lords, elections to the Scottish Parliament will indeed take place in six months’ time. Can the Minister confirm that if a majority of Members of that Parliament are elected on a manifesto committed to holding a referendum on independence, the UK Government will respect that mandate and work with Scotland’s Government to facilitate such a referendum within a reasonable timescale?

The noble Lord will not be surprised when I say that Scotland had an independence referendum in 2014 which was legal, fair and decisive. The people of Scotland voted by a significant margin to remain part of the UK, and we are committed to respecting and upholding that result. The noble Lord will know that the Prime Minister wrote to the First Minister of Scotland in January confirming that he cannot agree to any request for a further one.

My Lords, it is difficult to keep a marriage together when one party wants a complete separation. I must say to the Minister that rough wooing will not win her ladyship back. Does he agree that some in Whitehall still do not get that Britain is not England? Can he ensure that this message is sent round the departments? Can he also tell us how he will get the Government to explain their policies better? For instance, the furlough scheme seems to have been invented in Holyrood as far as the Scots are concerned, not in London, and is not funded by the English taxpayer.

I will certainly take back my noble friend’s first point. The furlough scheme, including the self-employment income support scheme, has supported the jobs of more than 930,000 people, so we can see how the Scots benefit. But the Prime Minister has said that if other parts of the UK need to go into measures that require the furlough scheme, it will be available to them not only now but in the future. However, it has been made clear that this would be a decision for the Chancellor, liaising with the Prime Minister.

My Lords, when we think of the relationships between the various nations of the United Kingdom, we realise that there are advantages to belonging to the United Kingdom, as well as the benefits of remaining with our own identities. I cherish my Welsh identity, but I also see advantages in our four nations working together. Would a federal solution not be the way forward, and in any ballot to have not simply “in” or “out” but three options: to stay as we are, with Scotland staying as it is; to leave 100%; or to build a federal United Kingdom?

The noble Lord leads me nicely into saying that there we are looking at two reviews: the Dunlop review, which I mentioned earlier, and the intergovernmental review. The noble Lord will be aware that there is a balance to be struck between devolving powers to the nations and having Great Britain—or England—supporting the nations too. The successful devolution of powers to legislatures and Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has taken place gradually over the last 20 years, with the Scotland Act and the Wales Act. Now is the time to review that, which is what we are doing.

My Lords, in its 2016 report, The Union and Devolution, the Constitution Committee stressed that the four nations of the United Kingdom are stronger together than apart, and reiterated what it said in 2014: that the 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 Minister has just stressed the benefits of the union to all parts of the United Kingdom, but what is the Government’s coherent vision for the shape and structure of the United Kingdom?

Notwithstanding the reviews that I have mentioned, one of the key policies that has been rolled out is the presence of the new Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh. This opened in September and is a powerful example of the UK’s wanting to show greater commitment to Scotland by liaising more closely with the Scottish Government, local authorities and communities. We want to emphasise once again that Scotland clearly is stronger as part of the UK.

My Lords, there is a clear surge in Scottish opinion supporting independence. The single factor identified behind this surge is the unpopularity of the Prime Minister. How do Her Majesty’s Government propose to remedy this danger to the union?

The measures that I have set out regarding what we are doing to help Scotland need to be put forward more clearly. The essence of my message today is that, from the unit in No. 10, we need to work harder on our communications, explaining and ensuring that the Scottish people understand what we are doing for them in all kinds of respects, from big infrastructure projects to new transport links.

My Lords, the existing constitutional arrangements throughout the UK, including in England, are increasingly unstable and unsustainable. A major cause is the economic, social and political dominance of London and south-east England and the London-based elites in all areas. Would the Government not be better setting up, in co-operation with other political parties, a constitutional convention covering all parts of the United Kingdom, including the regions of England?

Let us see what comes out of the reviews that I have mentioned. The noble Lord will be aware that on 1 January 2021, we will see the single biggest transfer of powers to the devolved Administrations in history, as the EU structures fall away and new powers transfer to the Administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It comes back to this balance, and the importance of ensuring that the nations know that they are better off together.

My Lords, what can the Government do to reduce the tensions with the devolved Administrations when legislating for an internal market?

We want to engage with the devolved Administrations on the UK internal market in order to manage the potential for market divergence and deliver a shared solution. We have a well-established government structure with the devolved Administrations to ensure collaboration on these policy issues, including the Joint Ministerial Committees and bilateral agreements.