Motion to Take Note
My Lords, on behalf of the committee, I say how much we welcome this opportunity to present our report and to update the House on the progress we have made since we published it. I thank the missing Ministers this evening—the noble Lord, Lord True, and Chloe Smith MP—who were extremely supportive and shared our journey to an extent. We welcome the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, this afternoon and look forward to hearing what he says.
Part of the benefit of working closely with Ministers is that we benefited from working with their officials in the Cabinet Office as well. They were always, and continue to be, extremely helpful to us. We welcome the Government’s response although, in a way inevitably I suppose, it was largely a statement of principle and support and there was a marked absence of hard, practical acceptance of the recommendations, but we hope that will improve too.
I start by thanking the committee and congratulating it on its stamina, not least over the past year. We have done a lot of things for the first time—we are a rather unusual committee—and it has been hard work. I am very pleased to say that, on Monday, the Liaison Committee agreed that we will extend our work until next summer. We really welcome that, because there is a lot still to be done. It is a real tribute to the work we do and to the need for Parliament to maintain its scrutiny over the common frameworks. It is also a tribute to the connections we have built up with the devolved Administrations across the UK.
I am blessed to chair a committee with such quality, insight and experience, often in high office, of what the journey to devolution has meant and its history. It is what gives our committee its unique weight and perspective and has enabled us to talk very frankly to the devolved Administrations, Ministers and stakeholders. Our expertise has already been poached; the Cabinet Office seized the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, and took him away from us. Although he has probably not gone to a better place, he has probably gone to serve a higher cause. In exchange, we got another hostage, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, who brings intimate knowledge of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. The only downside of meeting in person today—it is lovely to see the committee as we have not met in person as a committee before—is that we do not have the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, who has been a very important member and given us enormously wise advice.
I also thank our wonderful staff: Moriyo Aiyeola, who took over from Erik Tate, Tim Stacey, our absolutely splendid policy adviser, and Glenn Chapman and Breda Twomey, who keep us in order and make sure that we do not stray too far from our companion committees, the Constitution Committee and the Northern Ireland protocol committee, on which some of our members also serve.
My speech today is something of a common framework because there are lots of things that I know my colleagues will want to pick up in detail, and I look forward to hearing from them. I have to start with a rather blunt question to the Minister. I know that this is a new brief for him so we will be kind, as always, but we also have to ask some awkward questions. When he winds up, please can he tell us which Minister is now responsible for the common frameworks? Which department is now responsible for the common frameworks? No Cabinet Minister has yet been appointed to replace Chloe Smith. Does that mean that, from now on, there will be no Minister in the Cabinet Office responsible for co-ordinating and driving the common frameworks programme?
If the responsibility has moved to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, we presume that the Secretary of State, Mr Gove, will be the man in charge, but can the Minister tell us who the responsible Minister will be? If this is the case, it would have been nice to have been told earlier than now. I speak for the devolved Administrations as well. So we need answers this afternoon as a matter of urgency and credibility but also plain courtesy, especially to the devolved Administrations. I hope I am not being too pessimistic about this but I think the department will have to make an effort to make sure that the common frameworks are not seen as another aspect of local government, having gone into the department which traditionally has been about local government.
This debate is timely in many ways and the issues we raised in March are more urgent than ever. We subtitled our report “Building a Cooperative Union” because our work suggests that is what the common frameworks can uniquely do, especially when the political environment seems to be hostile to that ambition. Some of our witnesses said, in very many different words, that government relations with the devolved Administrations had never been worse. Obviously, we are not offering a holistic solution in our report—that is not our job and we would be naive to try—but it offers a pragmatic prescription rooted in what works.
The content of what we do is often technical, sometimes dauntingly so, but the context is wholly political. Although we are forced to focus on process, as the frameworks themselves do, the function of the frameworks is no less than to guarantee safe and appropriate services across the UK, covering a host of issues: nutritional standards, carbon emissions, food and feed safety, blood products and transport systems. Every framework is different, every department behaves differently, but they determine huge areas of health and safety across the UK.
Since the common frameworks emerged in 2017 with a set of clear principles, 32 frameworks have been designated to replace the rules which had been established by the European Commission to guarantee a functioning internal market and to protect the common resources of the environment, which is why over half the frameworks are concerned with environmental issues.
Much of this constructive work was virtually invisible, which is why it is a challenge to explain what the common frameworks do, but we emphasised in our report that these frameworks could play a unique role in creating new opportunities for collaboration and consensus across the UK, through shared information, interests, policy and process. Above all, they were the way by which the common framework of the internal market could be maintained at the same time as managing divergence, which was not disruptive. In short, the common frameworks are a new asset, they have huge potential and they should not be underplayed.
Since we reported in March, there have been some setbacks and these have been largely external. But there has been some progress and this is to the credit, not least, of the work of the Cabinet Office officials and, I like to think, of our committee itself, in the way we have drawn attention to inconsistency, sloppiness in some cases, and things that could be done better, including transparency.
Of course, we have been dealing with delay. Every deadline set by the Government has proved to be widely ambitious and widely missed. The first deadline was Christmas 2020, and the second was the Easter just gone; now we are told that it is Easter next year—we shall see. The fact that our committee has been extended to next summer gives us some scope.
As for progress, when the committee reported in March, only seven of the 32 frameworks in development had reached provisional status. In July, we had better news: a further 21 frameworks had reached provisional status. However, while the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments had signed them off, the Northern Ireland Executive had not. That has now, thankfully, changed, and the Northern Ireland Executive have approved the frameworks agreed by the four Administrations. This is most significant—and I am sure we will talk a lot about Ireland this afternoon—given that it is clear that common frameworks have the potential to be a positive force to reduce future tensions deriving from the protocol. To support this, we recommended that the Government should ensure that policy changes introduced with the protocol should be considered through the frameworks, in just the same way as divergent policy changes suggested by the other Administrations are so mediated. That would provide not just parity of process but a more predictable and transparent outcome.
The Government have accepted that in theory but, again, to what extent it will be applied in practice remains to be seen. That applies to our other recommendation that the significant number of frameworks that intersect with the protocol should include processes for reporting on the divergence that occurs and its effect. We have not seen any evidence of those reporting mechanisms being developed since we produced the report, but they are recommendations that do not ignore political realities; they are a pragmatic approach to a problem that we would like to contribute to solving. Perhaps the Minister could update us on the Government’s thinking on those areas.
The second area that has obstructed progress is the interaction between the common frameworks and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, which has continued to be a cause of friction between the UK Government and devolved Administrations. The Welsh Government believe that the Act unlawfully altered the devolution settlement, and they are pursuing legal action. The Bill was amended in Committee, thanks not least to one of the members of our committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the Act now contains the power for the Secretary of State to create exemptions from the effects of the Act in areas agreed through a common framework. We recommended in our report that each framework should be updated to include a consistent and transparent process for agreeing areas where this very important power will be used. It is proving difficult to do that; it is not easy—and we look forward to the Minister, I hope, telling us that some progress has been made, because it is definitely adding to frustrations and delays.
I turn briefly to the internal challenges of the programme itself. Much of the insecurity and difficulties around the frameworks is due to the lack of transparency, and I know that my colleagues will want to pick that particular failure up. The lack of transparency inhibits success, and that should not be the case. We have proposed a simple solution that an open consultation should be included in the scheduled review that each framework is due to undergo, but that has not happened. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says about that.
We also acknowledge in our recommendations that frameworks are still at an early stage. That makes it difficult to make any judgments as to whether they will raise or lower standards, maintaining or diluting previous European Union standards. It is difficult to determine that since, rather than establishing minimum standards, the 11 frameworks that we have seen have largely included agreements on the process for the future agreements of standards rather than the standards themselves. Since we reported, I can give one example whereby preliminary documents on the radioactive substances framework include agreement on maintaining or exceeding European standards.
All this is taking place within the wider challenges of the future of the devolution settlement. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, is with us this afternoon, and very much look forward to his contribution. Indeed, we look forward to seeing his report being implemented in full, as we do the outcomes of the intergovernmental committee and the Minister’s response on progress. Where we as a committee can speak with authority and unanimity is on the need for a clear commitment to ongoing parliamentary scrutiny.
In our report we recommended that the four Administrations should provide regular updates to their legislatures, and to public reporting as part of their planned reviews of the frameworks. Again, the Government are very much in favour of this in theory, but the commitments we have seen have been, frankly, lacklustre. The Welsh Government have no such inhibition in relation to the Senedd. The UK Government seem to fear making such a commitment as far as our Parliament is concerned.
In the context and in conclusion, I put on record the fact that our scrutiny committee is doing things for the first time and in different ways—not least because we are a unique and welcome point of contact between the Parliaments of the four countries. Our warm relationships and our continuing and frank exchanges have been mutually valid: they have set a tone and a precedent for what could and should happen going forward. The strength of devolution lies in the balance between common and individual interests and common frameworks both exemplify this and have the power to strengthen the wider and critical relationships. We hope most fervently that this is something that the Government, and Parliament as a whole, will want to invest in. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her leadership on the committee, and the staff and committee colleagues. The committee brings together a unique breadth of knowledge and experience from all four quarters of the UK. We have members who have been Ministers in the UK Government and in the devolved Administrations —members who have been elected not only to this Parliament but to the devolved legislatures—and an impressive breadth of legal expertise. This report is six months old but is now more relevant than ever. Common frameworks do not make the headlines, but they can be an important part of the cement holding our union together. They recognise the autonomy of the four Administrations and acknowledge that there can be divergence based on mutual consent. However, to do that job properly they must be handled with full transparency, with full public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny, both here and in the devolved nations.
The committee has repeatedly questioned the restrictive approach to consultation on draft frameworks and we have been given a variety of reasons for this. At first we were told that there was a need for speed, as all common frameworks had to be done by Christmas 2020. That, clearly, no longer holds water. The Government’s response to our report justifies limited consultation by saying that frameworks are really just about ways of working together rather than being about policy development. However, that is undermined by the rather haphazard approach to selecting appropriate consultees. For example, why is one farming union invited to give a response but not all of them? Broad consultation is an important way to increase transparency, the lack of which has been criticised in all the devolved legislatures as well as by the chairs of two committees from the other place.
Lack of transparency leads to lack of scrutiny, and the frameworks process is considerably less transparent and democratic than the EU processes it replaced, with a public debate involved in the European Parliament, for example. Overlaying on this rather obscure process the shock of the sudden emergence of the internal market Bill, and one can understand how that struck at any vestiges of confidence that the devolved Administrations felt in the UK Government’s even-handedness. Our haphazard devolution process has not really moved on in essentials since it was established at the end of the last century when the Labour Party were in power across Britain. Nobody then envisaged the political diversity we now have.
Frameworks include processes for resolving disputes, but they are not robust because they rely on the UK Government representing England at one point in the process and then acting as the ultimate UK Court of Appeal. There is a dangerous power imbalance. For our lopsided union to survive, it needs urgent attention, and the Dunlop review needs to be acted upon forthwith. If there is so much distrust in the post-EU processes at this stage, then they will not withstand the pressures when the standards start to change—environmental standards, consumer protection and so on. Inevitably they will change; EU standards will be raised, or the UK might decide to diverge.
The internal market Act has entrenched the superior position of the UK Government, with very little space for the devolved Administrations to take account of concerns and different circumstances across the nations. There are very limited exclusions from the primacy of market access principles—much more limited than under EU law. This undermines devolved powers, so it is no wonder the devolved Administrations did not give their legislative consent and the Welsh Government took the process to the courts. Overlay on this the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and the position is unsustainable.
The messages are clear, the evidence was clear from across the UK, and we are the messengers. The Government ignore this at their peril. Common frameworks are humble, even banal, but vital for the way in which the UK can operate co-operatively in future.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a chancellor of a Welsh university, Aberystwyth, and an interest as a member of the First Minister’s advisory committee on the exit from the European Union. I also pay an enormous tribute to the stewardship and diligence that our chairman and the staff of this committee have brought to this task. If one looked at the title of this committee and the report, “Common Frameworks”, you would think this was an entirely unimportant and wholly dull subject. It is a tribute to the chairman and staff that they have made it both fascinating and interesting. Let me try to explain why before I turn to the detail.
It was obvious when we departed from the European Union that, as the devolution settlements had been crafted during the period of devolution, there had to be something in place, given the commitment that there would be no fundamental change to the position on devolution. It is a tribute to us as a nation—and I speak as a unionist—that we have innovated through this rather dull-sounding subject, because common frameworks are a constitutional innovation of great importance, which have not really been properly studied as yet. They have provided us with a way, which is important in any non-unitary state—and ours is no longer a unitary state—of devising a means of allowing the constituent elements to have a degree of freedom to differentiate but also to have a means of holding the union together. That is their fundamental importance and the fundamental innovation of this subject.
It was a great pity that the process did not get under way properly, but I do not want to go back over that—there is little point. What is important is that we now look to the future. I would like to look to the future under two headings. First, I look at the grind that is involved, because developing new constitutional principles is hard work and requires attention to detail.
One of the outstanding achievements of the staff of the committee is to start to analyse the frameworks. One knows, when we pass legislation, that parliamentary counsel are assiduous in looking at their books, working out what has to go in and making certain our legislation, our statute book, remains one of the prizes of the way in which we do things; but none of that exists for common frameworks. Therefore, it has needed an analysis—an analysis of the approach of the frameworks to policy co-operation, operational co-operation, joint risk assessment, involvement of senior officials, the frequency of meetings, the presence of advisory boards and groups, reporting commitments and the very difficult subject of Northern Ireland. All this needs analysis to make certain that these frameworks have a consistent constitutional principle.
Secondly, we need to ensure that there is detailed consultation—again, hard work—and then there has to be scrutiny. I hope it is not too much of a shock to my colleagues that we really need, in the end, to distil the principles under which these will operate. That is the detailed work, but it is so important because it goes to the governance of the United Kingdom. I read with admiration the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, and I look forward to his contribution this afternoon, but it is hard to underestimate the importance of the frameworks in ensuring a strong union by getting right a co-operative effort to make certain policy is formulated on a common basis but, on the other hand, allowing a degree of diversity that benefits everyone and enables each of the separate nations to make their respective contributions.
One cannot underestimate the change that has occurred during the pandemic. I have been surprised, in Wales, to see the shift away from a firm belief in the union to a question over it. These common frameworks give us the opportunity to show the strength of the union and of devolution, but it requires hard work. That hard work will be to try—this is ultimately our biggest task —to make sure that people understand what is by its title apparently such a dull, yet is a highly important, subject.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. He is a vigorous champion for Wales, devolution and the union, and I very much agree with what he said. I also add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and all her colleagues for producing such a lucid report, and I thank the committee for inviting me to give evidence. Their report was already written before I gave evidence, so I cannot claim any credit for contributing to its lucidity.
In a post-Brexit devolution world, the UK and devolved Governments depend on each other to be successful. Covid has clearly shown that. This requires processes and structures to facilitate how Governments across the UK work together and reach agreements—the co-operative union of the title of the committee’s report. In my view, the need for co-operation is likely only to grow if devolution within England is extended. Despite significant devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK remains one of the most centralised states in the OECD.
As the work of Professor Philip McCann of Sheffield University demonstrates, economies grow more strongly when they grow more evenly, and they grow more evenly where governance is less centralised. Dispersed power potentially makes life more difficult for Ministers and civil servants. They will have to contend with stronger voices from the UK’s more peripheral regions when establishing national priorities and allocating resources. That is why negotiating successfully with and mediating between the demands of different tiers of government must be a core UK Government capability. This capability will certainly improve fast if devolution within the UK is extended.
Since the committee produced its report, there has been a reshuffle. Two of its most notable features in the context of this debate are: bringing together in one department responsibility for levelling up, English devolution and strengthening the union; and, formally recognising, for the first time, the role within Government of a Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. I may be naively optimistic, but to me this suggests a more joined-up approach. I certainly hope so.
I want to touch on two points in the committee’s report. First, it rightly draws attention to the reform of the way intergovernmental relations are managed and disputes handled. This work is an important companion piece to common frameworks—a layer above, if you like—to deal with cross-cutting issues and to provide a means for dispute escalation. At the time of devolution in the late 1990s, insufficient attention was given to how Whitehall needed to adapt to the changes and to the glue holding together the United Kingdom. The draft package of reforms published by the Government in March was promising. It recognised that mechanisms for managing intergovernmental relations must be jointly owned by the UK Government and devolved Administrations and underpinned by impartial support and evidence—something I certainly recommended in my report. Agreement on this package seems tantalisingly close, and I hope that when he comes to reply to the debate, the Minister can update us on progress.
Reformed processes and structures take us only so far, so my second and final point is that a genuinely co-operative union needs to be founded on a culture of constructive engagement. As a doyen of the dance floor, the new Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, Michael Gove, knows better than most that it takes two to tango. It is disappointing—to extend the metaphor—that the Scottish Government sometimes appear out of step and unco-operative: for example, when it comes to engaging with worthwhile UK-wide initiatives such as the Hendy connectivity review and the development of freeports. That is why the committee’s report—this has been mentioned already—is right to highlight the importance of greater transparency and scrutiny of common frameworks and intergovernmental co-operation. Each can play an important part in encouraging, from all the parties, the right and better behaviours.
Here the UK Government need to show leadership by allowing light to be shone into what can often appear an opaque and closed world. Perhaps the Minister could also provide an update on progress in this area. The Government got off to a good start by publishing in March, alongside the draft package of IGR reforms, a first quarterly report on Intergovernmental Relations. By my reckoning there should have been two further reports since, but I am not sure there have been. If I am right, can the Minister explain why and say when the next report is expected?
I conclude by thanking the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee once again for its report, and I hope the Government will heed its constructive conclusions.
My Lords, it is quite intimidating to follow on from such a range of knowledgeable speakers. I join other noble Lords in thanking the committee members and the team they worked with for such an incisive report.
Although it is an excellent and well-constructed report that demonstrates the breadth of evidence provided to the committee, it does not paint a very satisfactory picture of where we have got to in the five years since the referendum on the EU. I am therefore pleased to hear about the extension to the committee’s work. I echo the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about the failure to replace Chloe Smith. This might not have been a major issue in England but it made front-page news in the Herald on Monday morning—obviously another football to be kicked around.
Having considered the document, one thing is clear: even if the common frameworks are successful, they can be only a short-term arrangement for joint working between the four nations—there I have to disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas. There is an obvious need for a more transparent and accountable arrangement for dealing with devolved powers that have cross-territorial implications.
The report reminds us that the UK was in the European Union when devolution occurred and that had that not been the case, far more consideration would have been given both to the powers of each of the devolved Administrations and to how England would be represented in such an arrangement.
Not having a codified constitution may have some advantages. It allows changes to be introduced quickly when Governments have to respond to significant political pressure, but, on the other hand, quick fixes are not always the best. In the UK it has resulted in a piecemeal approach to devolving powers, leaving a patchwork of different arrangements in different parts of the UK. Now is the time to rethink those unnecessarily complicated arrangements as part of the adjustment to Brexit. This ought to have been an opportunity to involve the devolved Governments in planning how they would share governance over the repatriated powers. The most obvious solution to me is some form of federal arrangement.
The last-minute rush to get the deal through Parliament and to negotiate the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement obviously failed to take serious account of the implications for Northern Ireland, but it also left questions about Scotland and Wales. It is therefore not at all surprising that the original analysis that identified 154 potential areas for common frameworks could not be implemented. Even the much smaller number that are being taken forward are obviously presenting significant challenges.
The UK is already highly centralised, and even after 20 years, the Government still do not seem to understand the purpose of devolution. The report gives the example of this in the UK Government’s decision not to involve the devolved Administrations in the development of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act. As the Government of the whole of the UK, this demonstrates a lack of respect and a failure to look beyond what is good for England—which, not surprisingly, further increases the lack of trust.
The common frameworks approach does not tackle a fundamental concern identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that the Government are both a participant on behalf of England and the final arbiter in any dispute. Does the Minister understand and accept the concerns about the lack of transparency and trust that add to the sense that the Government have little interest or respect for democratic structures outside the Westminster bubble?
If the UK is to stay together, it must involve a change in relationships. However, there is little evidence that the Government understand this. Probably the only way to hold Scotland within the United Kingdom will be to establish a second Chamber where the voices of the nations and regions can be given parity of esteem and find out what they have in common rather than what divides them. Co-operation rather than competition is the key.
My Lords, I begin by paying my own very warm tribute to our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, whose charm and good will has made membership of this committee so very enjoyable. I join her in thanking all our clerks and policy advisers for their contribution to our work, which has been invaluable.
People sometimes ask, “What’s in a name?” The answer I usually give is, “Quite a lot, actually”. That is certainly so in the case of the common frameworks. It was not the most stimulating of names to give this project—indeed, it is rather dull, as has been suggested. The words themselves are accurate and meaningful enough to those who know what common frameworks actually are, but those who know what they mean are few and far between, and there is not much about them to excite interest among those in government who ought to know and do not. The contrast between them and the internal market Act 2020 could not be more striking. The words “internal market” were well chosen. They have an instant appeal and require no explanation. We have done our best at the start of the summary of our report to provide as succinct explanation of what is meant by common frameworks as can be devised. But our explanation occupies two sentences, some 40 words, and most other attempts that I have seen are a good deal longer.
The approach to the consequences of our departure from the EU that the internal market Act takes is so very different from that of common frameworks, and that is a source of real concern. One of the core strengths of the union to which all four nations in these islands belong is the respect that we give to our separate identities. Consultation, discussion and agreement wherever possible are the guiding principles. All four nations are involved in this process, and where divergence is acceptable to all, the common frameworks will allow for this, too. That point needs to be widely understood and respected.
The internal market Act, on the other hand, was designed by and for the centre. Its purpose was to ensure that there were no harmful barriers to trade between the different parts of the UK. But by elevating that principle above everything else, as the Act appeared to do, it appeared to ignore everything that the common frameworks were designed to achieve. Only at the last moment, by amendments to what are now Sections 10 and 18, was any recognition given to what the common frameworks are seeking to achieve. That was an unfortunate start for a vital step forward before the Bill was eventually enacted. As several of our witnesses made clear, the imbalance of power between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government which that Act creates is very obvious. Those sections give a discretion to the Secretary of State to exempt an agreed divergence from the internal market principles, but it is only a discretion, which may or may not be exercised.
That brings me to paragraph 102 of our report, where we recommend that
“the UK Government should work closely with the devolved administrations to develop a consistent and transparent process”
for the use of those discretionary powers. Their approach so far to the issue of divergence has tended to be fragmented, with different Ministers in different departments taking decisions on these cross-cutting issues without full consultation with all the interested parties or the full and frank sharing of information that needs to be shared. Paragraph 12 of the Government’s response tells us that the process that they aim to set up is still unclear, and it is certainly not clear how far that process has gone.
In June of this year, the Institute for Government recommended that a central unit in the Cabinet Office should be set up to oversee the UK internal market, track divergence between the different parts of the union and consider its implications for trade, devolution and the preservation of the union. It is disturbing to read in paragraph 36 of the Government’s response that the role of the Cabinet Office is to be reduced over time. Our point, which I bring to the Minister’s attention, is that it is far too early for that to happen. There is still too much uncertainty about how this process will be carried out. Guidance from the centre remains crucial to its success, and it is likely to be so for a considerable time to come. I should be grateful if the Minister could say whether this point about the importance of guidance from the centre is really understood and appreciated.
My Lords, I am proud of our report. As a committee, we have worked extremely well together. Much of this is down to our excellent staff and, of course, our chair, my noble friend Lady Andrews. Her patience, intellectual rigour and wicked sense of humour have ensured that we have produced a report that honestly scrutinises the Government’s work so far in co-ordinating key policy areas across the UK post Brexit. I say “work so far” because, in our conclusions, we have found the Government wanting on several fronts—despite welcome, regular updates from the Minister, Chloe Smith, at a time that has been challenging for her personally.
As my noble friend Lady Andrews said, we need to ensure that the common frameworks have not become orphaned in the latest reshuffle when it comes to ministerial oversight. Because common frameworks play such a vital role in the practical, day-to-day co-ordination of policy, as Members have said, in 32 areas of the UK’s new internal market, our list of recommendations needs to be taken really seriously by government. Indeed, the Government’s initial response to our report has been encouraging, but the delays in finalising common frameworks have now become very noticeable to stakeholders, to experts and to us in our job as scrutineers.
It is not as if our current post-Brexit economy and internal market are running so smoothly that complacency on common frameworks can be the order of the day. Many of us are bewildered about how quickly our modern, relatively well-oiled supply chains and labour market access—going back decades—have ground to a halt in the last few weeks. The Army being drafted in and competition law being suspended is not a good look for Team GB.
The committee believes that, as well as delays, there has been a lack of transparency in the development of common frameworks, with parliamentary scrutiny across the four nations being, at best, an afterthought and, at worst, an inconvenience. Stakeholder engagement has been inadequate and, at times, bizarre, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, highlighted. The quality of some departments’ output has also been unacceptable to the committee, as our chair has said. The Cabinet Office, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has just referred, has taken a co-ordinating interest up to now, but sees future framework monitoring placed in individual government departments. That way lies either inaction or turf wars. We would far rather see in the future the four devolved Administrations issuing regular updates to their legislatures and publishing reviews of the frameworks.
A serious concern of the committee has been how the frameworks interact with the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Yet, until very recently, there has been a backlog of frameworks in front of the Northern Ireland Executive, and therefore a delay in the scrutinising work of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have asked how the dynamic alignment with the EU in the protocol will work with common frameworks not only now but in the future. We have not had very satisfactory answers.
The noble Lord, Lord Frost, has been bringing the kettle to the boil, shall we say, on the future of the protocol. In September, speaking to the British-Irish Association, he said that
“we need to see substantial … change”
in three areas:
“movement of goods into Northern Ireland, the standards for goods within Northern Ireland, and the governance arrangements for regulating this”.
Since then, we have had his Lisbon speech on the same theme but going much further. How does the Minister intend to deal with the effective management of common frameworks that intersect with the protocol in these coming uncertain months?
Before I close, I welcome the Dunlop report and am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, in his place. We see common frameworks, in their capacity as voluntary agreements, as a great opportunity to strengthen relations across the devolved Administrations. Those relations certainly need strengthening if the union is to hold. The prospect of the House of Lords playing a new and useful role as a neutral forum for receiving the views of the devolved Administrations and bringing about closer interparliamentary co-operation is one we could all roll up our sleeves for.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, was characteristically generous to the staff of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee—and rightly so—as well as to the members of the committee. But, if the truth be known, she has led us in an utterly unpartisan manner, melding the opinions of noble Lords from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, as well as those of the noble and learned Lords from the Cross Benches, into a cohesive, collective view. Her introduction to the debate was both comprehensive and clear, and was one with which we can all, I am sure, agree.
We have the advantage that we all seem to enjoy each other’s company—albeit remotely, as we have had to participate on screen rather than, as here, in person. It is also a pleasure to welcome my noble friend the Minister to his new role, and to see my noble friend Lord Dunlop in his place. Through his eponymous report and its recommendations, he has played a central part in the study of the union, the United Kingdom and all its constituent nations, and of course he also gave us some extremely valuable evidence—albeit, as he said, after the completion of this report. However, I have no doubt that others will follow.
I believe that in our committee we all share a desire to see the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flourish under the current dispensation. If any of us wants, for example, to see a closer political and economic tie between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or greater self-determination for England, Scotland or Wales, we want those things achieved in a spirit of democratic and mutual respect, and not antagonism, still less enmity. We represent—in so far as this House can do that—each of the four countries of the union by birth and residence, and, if I may say so, we all bring a particular expertise and experience to the committee.
However, whether our focus is on Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland or England, as well as on the United Kingdom as a whole, we all understand the delicacy of the current devolution settlement and the difficulties that the United Kingdom Government have in representing the interests of both the entire union and of England. Our committee is not a body of revolutionaries; we want to see the post-Brexit transfer of powers from the EU to the four UK Administrations achieved with efficiency, with competence and with consent.
The report we are debating, although the result of a good deal of hard work, is necessarily disappointing—not because of anything we have done but because of the external constraints under which we have been placed. One of them, lack of time, has been lifted, and we are to continue until next summer. Some may say that what we have been scrutinising is no more than the tedious process of moving regulations from one political institution, in Europe, to others here. I caution against that glib opinion: the name of our committee, and the work that we have done, may not excite Fleet Street’s finest, or even Brexit’s praetorian guard within Parliament, but, as with a number of institutions in this country, those with the fanciest titles often have the smallest influence. Go behind the name of this committee and read the report to see what others we observe, with grander names, have—or, more worryingly, have not—been doing.
Having listened to Ministers and officials giving evidence to us, it is my experience that, in the United Kingdom Government at the political level, there is a lack of real interest in the process and in the work required to ensure that the process works well. This must be got right if we are successfully and consensually to move powers from the EU’s institutions to our own.
This committee was established in September 2020, over a year ago, yet we have been supplied with a very small number of common frameworks. The rate of progress in bringing them forward to us has been, frankly, lamentable, and the process of their development has been opaque. The surprise expressed by Ministers that we were, and remain, dissatisfied with departmental progress has been extraordinary. The detailed consequences of Brexit, if not spoken about by government before the event—here I give them the benefit of the doubt—must at least have been known and thought about beforehand. Yet there we were in March, when our report was published, and here we are seven months later, with a woefully small number of these frameworks available for scrutiny.
Defra is the department with most to deal with, which is why I mention it, but when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was giving evidence to us recently he could not tell us when the process would be completed. My impression, and this may not have been shared by other noble Lords on the committee, is that he really had no idea what the timetable for his department looked like. To be fair to him, he was not the only government Minister to give me that impression but, across government, I see a lack of political drive and leadership in this policy area. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, in the direct questions that she posed to the Minister this afternoon and with the concerns expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas.
My other concern is that there is a lack of respect and understanding among the United Kingdom Government’s political leadership for the policies and desires of the elected devolved Administrations. I fundamentally disagree with the aims of the SNP and I find the attitude and posturing of its leadership tiresome, but that is the party whose Ministers happen to be in government in Scotland. I am not a supporter of the Labour Government in Wales either but, like it or not—I do not—it is the duly elected Government of Wales. I am certainly no fan of Sinn Féin and have my reservations about aspects of the DUP’s politics but, again, they are the parties in government within Northern Ireland.
My understanding is, from evidence that we had from witnesses from the DAs and other non-political interested parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that, whereas officials in Whitehall maintain good business relationships with their counterparts in the DAs, there is no such equivalence at a political level. I dare say that this is caused to an extent by mutual political dislike or distrust, but the Westminster Government are the Government of the entire country whose Parliament legislated for the current dispensation and, although imperfect and replete with annoyances, it is the one we presently have. I, therefore, through the Minister, urge the Government to work harder to forge better relations with the DAs for the sake of the future of our United Kingdom.
I want to follow my noble and learned friend and add my congratulations most warmly to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, the rest of the committee and her staff team for what has been an excellent report. I feel that I am here as an interloper. I am a non-practising member of the Faculty of Advocates, have followed common frameworks closely and, indeed, matters relating to Defra over the past few years. I should like to limit my remarks to two specific points.
I applaud common frameworks as a success story in intergovernmental relations to which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, referred. I welcome the fact that common frameworks exist where necessary for, among other reasons, ensuring the proper functioning of the United Kingdom’s internal market. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, alluded to, I acknowledge that increasing tensions and policy divergence have been appearing, particularly through the operation of the internal market Act, the Trade Act, the Agriculture Act and, most recently—as a number of us have been advised by the Law Society of Scotland—the passage of the Environment Bill.
Briefly, without going into too much detail—the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, may reflect on this in his remarks when summing up the debate from his perspective—Amendment 80 was passed by the House to Clause 20 of the Environment Bill relating in particular to provisions on forest risk commodities and environmental principles. To cut a long story short—I am sure that I could spend all afternoon talking about this because it is technical—I understand that legislative consent has not been granted by the Scottish Parliament to the Bill as amended in Committee. While congratulating my noble friend the Minister on his new responsibilities, I invite him to use his good offices in his new role to liaise and work as closely as he can with the Minister for the Environment, our noble friend Lord Goldsmith, to find a resolution to this situation before that Bill is concluded.
I also add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Dunlop on the excellent work in his report. It is a great tribute to him that the common frameworks and the work of the committee will build on the conclusions that he has drawn. That will also be a testament to the work of the department regarding the extent to which the union holds strong as we proceed over the coming months, particularly given the ongoing tensions on the Northern Ireland protocol, as discussed earlier in the Chamber.
The only other comment I wish to make, as my noble and learned friend highlighted, is that Defra has 14 of the common frameworks as itemised under the Bill, yet only one has a provisional framework. I note that the others have no document whatever. Having represented a rural part of north Yorkshire which is not a million miles from the Scottish border, I know that tensions will be mounting—the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, will follow this closely from the Northern Ireland perspective. If payments are to be made which could have a competitive impact on farming operations between different parts of the union, that bodes very badly indeed. Will my noble friend investigate why there has been such little progress in these very important common frameworks that relate to the work of Defra? Can he give us an idea of the timeframe? If he cannot, will he pursue this with our noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who I am sure will be able to report to him?
It is extremely important that common frameworks are seen to work as effectively as they were meant to do. I conclude by saying what a role the committee has in holding the Government’s feet to the fire and making sure that all four nations of the union can proceed on an equal basis going forward—there might be divergences of policy, but these should be kept, at best, to the absolute minimum wherever possible.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and to commend our chair and staff of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee. It was a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. She was able, with our assistance but mostly through her dogged determination, to get at the Government’s reasons for the delays in scrutinising the frameworks and having them ready for our further scrutiny, and the nature of the relationships between Whitehall/Westminster and the devolved Administrations. She also ensured that we arrived at a consensus report full of strong recommendations and capable of implementation by the Government. We also received a response to it from them.
Coming from Northern Ireland, I will focus on that area. Due to several political reasons, there have been delays—now there has been some speed in the last few weeks—in determining a scrutiny position from the Northern Ireland Executive on those frameworks. Part of the reason was down to the lack of devolution for some three years and the fact that it was suspended. Then we had Brexit and the differing views within the Northern Ireland Executive on it and the, shall we say, unwillingness of the DUP and Sinn Féin to work together in the joint offices of First and Deputy First Ministers. As a consequence of those political permutations, we ended up with delays; some would say “We approve them”, but the other side would not. All that has simply manifested in delays in not only common frameworks but the general political process in Northern Ireland, which in turn has impacted communities and delivery for communities.
Our committee was quite clear in talking about the relationship between Northern Ireland and the common frameworks. We recommended that frameworks should include processes for reporting on divergence between GB and Northern Ireland, with results being
“forwarded to the EU for information”.
Due to the fact that the Northern Ireland protocol contains a list of EU rules that Northern Ireland must continue to apply in the same way as the EU does, as divergence starts to take place in Britain, differences will begin to emerge between rules in Britain and Northern Ireland, which could negatively impact UK businesses.
I note this evening that the EU has brought forward some very important proposals that will deal with all those mitigations in the agri-food sector. I hope there is the ability and capacity to accept those within the Government, the parties and the wider community. I know that businesses in Northern Ireland want to get on with it and do the work that they are employed to do to deliver for all of us who live there.
All of this raises several questions I would like to pose to the Minister. Have any significant issues been identified through the frameworks and how efficient have those frameworks been in facilitating information exchange with the Northern Ireland Executive? As already referenced, our committee has yet to see a concrete commitment on reporting on divergence in areas where the protocol applies. We recommended that
“frameworks that include a major intersection with the Protocol”—
there are some 32 of them, because they deal with agri-food and the energy sector—
“should include processes for reporting on the divergence that occurs and its effects”.
Do the Government have any examples of them setting up processes through frameworks to monitor the effects of the protocol? I will say this rather gently to the Government: my view is that the Government have simply obfuscated the situation with the EU. Whenever the EU has indicated, as it did this afternoon, that it is bringing forward new mitigation proposals, the Government have brought forward red lines. This begs the question: do the Government want a resolution to the challenges presented by the protocol? They impact on the common frameworks issues of divergence, general policy-making and devolution within the three nations and Northern Ireland as a region. The people of Northern Ireland—and that is a divided society—cannot any longer be used as a bargaining chip in the overall relationship process with the EU.
Only this week I became aware that some learned people have brought forward suggestions about the way forward on frameworks. I look to those viewpoints for potential solutions. As one authority on EU-UK-Irish relations has said:
“The UK government must have systems in place to effectively monitor changes to EU law applicable under the protocol and ensure that relevant information triggers discussions in the relevant common framework.”
I ask the Minister: is this happening, or has it been considered and, if not, why not? That authority also states that the UK Government should be in a state of readiness to gather intelligence about future regulatory developments in Brussels. Is this work under way? That is vital, because I am also a member of the protocol sub-committee and all this legislation that impacts on Northern Ireland keeps coming to us on a weekly basis. In that regard, it also impacts on the common frameworks. There needs to be ongoing work and a stop put to the messiness we have seen over the last number of months.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, to welcome the Minister to his new role and to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop. I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond as a member of this Select Committee to the first report of Session 2019-21. It is chaired so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. I acknowledge her detailed introduction and record my thanks to the committee staff, colleagues and advisers.
This Select Committee is unique in that it liaises with both the Cabinet Office and Whitehall, together with all the devolved Administrations. With our membership, importantly, drawn strategically from across the UK, it is in an excellent position to support the development of a strong focus and respect for all four devolved Administrations, with a clear aim to assist in building a co-operative union.
During the committee’s sittings, we have benefited from speaking not only with Ministers but with many academics drawn from all corners of the UK, as well as from listening to stakeholders and businesses who supplied a detailed wealth of written evidence. During Covid we have operated as a virtual committee, which has enabled us to link up so easily with those many witnesses, aiding our scrutiny work immensely.
It was envisaged that the frameworks would be agreed and in place by the end of the transition period, but regrettably this has been hampered by a reduction in the capacity of the devolved Administrations due to Brexit and then Covid-19. The process has also not been helped by the variable quality and clarity of the documents produced by individual departments for the committee to scrutinise. The setting of the timetable is a particularly challenging one, yet I stress the importance of scrutiny frameworks going forward so that they can be continually strengthened to aid future trade deals. This committee has strived for transparency throughout our deliberations, while also developing ongoing collaboration and consensus between the four Administrations with respect to the importance of adhering to a clear mechanism to resolve disputes.
Common frameworks strive to play a vital role in the UK’s economic development, seeking to achieve higher standards across the UK in developing and achieving their full potential. One area in which this committee challenged was when a decision was taken for “no further action”. The committee was of the opinion that a requirement was needed to record a more open response and that the Government should therefore publish a short justification for each policy area, producing a more transparent process than the EU and enabling an expansion of a detailed stakeholder consultation for each framework.
I support the idea that the Government should publish frameworks as and when they are agreed or amended and where new frameworks are developed following the publication of draft framework documents as early as possible in the process to allow for comments from stakeholders. There are, however, ongoing concerns surrounding the practical implications of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland with the end of the transition period, and work must continue to prevent even more friction. The Government must also seek to minimise divergence within the scope of a common framework, deliver clear timescales for resolving cross-cutting issues and seek more clarity on the extent to which common frameworks will be either GB or UK-wide in scope.
I welcome the publication of the Dunlop report, in which the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, emphasised the need for a new approach to UK intergovernmental relations. Promoting areas of shared interest, demonstrating mutual respect, seeking to resolve disputes with early interventions and supporting the four Administrations to pursue regular updates to their legislatures is the way forward. Reports must be acted upon. Finally, the committee felt it should have the flexibility to extend the process of scrutinising individual frameworks beyond 21 days if needed.
I am satisfied with the Government’s endorsement, in that they will publish frameworks as and when agreed and when new frameworks are developed and that they will publish those draft framework documents as early as possible. Further, the Government have agreed to provide more information on the “no further action” classification process; again, I welcome this.
Frameworks must be in place to supply businesses and consumers certainty when buying and selling throughout the UK, as well as to deliver a strong union. Some work has been completed by this scrutiny committee, but there is much more to do. I am pleased that our remit has been extended, but the Government need to support greater parliamentary scrutiny to add vigour.
My Lords, I echo everything that has been said by every contributor to this debate about our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, says, she has welded a disparate team into a common purpose and has added to the dynamics of this process, which would not have happened had we not existed. Indeed, as has been hinted at, there was some element of drift and lack of engagement, and our committee has a vital role to ensure that that does not characterise the common frameworks as, I hope, they draw to their conclusion in reasonable time. I therefore also welcome the fact that we have been extended, because had we not been, I would wonder what would have happened to the process without our attention.
As has been said, common frameworks must seem dry, technical and esoteric, but at a time when the integrity of the United Kingdom is under intense pressure, I believe our committee has realised that that they are of immense importance—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, argued that cogently and effectively. They are not completed—they are far from that—and they have not been fully tested. However, the approach to the common frameworks has been welcomed by officials and Ministers both in the devolved Administrations and legislatures and in the UK Government.
When the committee began its work, relations between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations were at a very low ebb and got worse. When the UK internal market Bill was published with no notice or prior consultation and other legislation was being pushed through, the impression was given that the UK Government were using post-Brexit legislation to undermine the devolution settlements. However, the internal market Act and the trade treaties that flow from Brexit could strain devolution to breaking point if not handled sensitively.
The more we have considered common frameworks, the more I have been convinced that they encapsulate the approach that should characterise relationships between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations generally, not just with regard to the application of the frameworks. They are voluntary and they seek consensus, and although they are about the technicalities, not policy, it should be recognised that the practical applications that were previously carried out in the EU were done in an open and transparent process that has not been a feature of the way common frameworks have developed.
It has been acknowledged that UK Ministers wear two hats as English and UK Ministers, which means that they cannot be impartial in the final resolution, so some more balanced, open and fair mechanism will be required to resolve disputes if they escalate to that level. The committee has pointed that out and the evidence has been brought to us as we have proceeded. Mike Russell, then the Constitution Minister in the Scottish Government, told us that
“The relationships between Governments have been very poor and getting poorer”
and David Rees, chair of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee of the Senedd, said that relations were in
“a state of suboptimal mutual hostility.”
If the United Kingdom is to hold together, there needs to be a reset of intergovernmental relations, which is why our committee welcomed the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, and indeed the evidence he gave to us, which recommended the establishment of a co-operative union. That is what we need.
It may not be surprising that relations between the Scottish and UK Governments are strained, given that their commitments to the continuation of the United Kingdom are diametrically opposed. However, I contend that both are at fault and both need to tread more responsibly, carefully and constructively. The 2014 referendum produced a clear vote against independence and, today, opinion in Scotland continues to be deeply divided. Nobody would expect the SNP to give up its aspirations for independence, but nor should it ignore its responsibility at least to acknowledge that Scotland operates within a devolved arrangement and will do so for the foreseeable future. By the same token, the UK Government are entitled to present their responsibilities as they affect Scotland, but they need to seek consensus and agreement rather than provoke confrontation and resentment, which on occasions seems to have been the preferred option. That applies also to the very sensitive situation in Northern Ireland and to Wales, and indeed to the regions in England, which have their own agenda too. Reversing or overriding devolution settlements should not be an option any more than devolved Administrations refusing to accept the legitimacy of the United Kingdom Government.
The current friction over the application of the Northern Ireland protocol does not bode well. The Government negotiated and signed the agreement, and resiling from it will have serious consequences. If the temperature was lowered and trust restored, it should be possible to find ways in which to apply the protocol with a light touch, which may make trade between the GB and Northern Ireland affordable. Turning up the heat could make restrictions unbearable, disrupt trade further and threaten peace.
Tensions within the UK and between the UK and EU serve no one’s real interests, although some may see a populist pay-off in provoking them. In the long run, politics exists to resolve tensions. Meanwhile, the Governments of Scotland and the UK sometimes seem to indulge in exacerbating them. I detect that the people of Scotland are getting a little weary of this, and I would welcome a more constructive approach by both Governments, drawing on the positive experience today of the common frameworks process. They are not dull—they are a model on which we can build.
My Lords, this is my first time in the Moses Room, and it really is the House of Lords at its best. During this debate, I have heard wise and careful counsel from experienced colleagues from all areas of the UK and, indeed, all parties, ably led by my compatriot, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews.
Common frameworks can be a model for co-operation between equals and for progress by agreement that can be applied elsewhere, and all three Governments of the nations have shown commitment towards the UK Government in principle and in practice. The time taken to appoint a UK Government Minister for frameworks has caused a delay in the programme, but I believe it is still anticipated that there will be publication of most frameworks for scrutiny by legislatures in the first half of November.
The committee has said that at least three major problems exist with the current framework approach. First, during much of their evolution, frameworks have been developed behind closed doors and with minimal stakeholder engagement or parliamentary scrutiny. The vast majority are unfinished and have still not been published, despite being operational. Secondly, their relationship with the protocol for Ireland/Northern Ireland needs to be clarified, as was so ably expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. Thirdly, more information must be given to Parliament so that it can scrutinise effectively the operation of these important intergovernmental relations, which remain largely invisible. Wales has already developed a parliamentary scrutiny model for the Senedd.
The Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee is central to the practical underpinning of the union as a whole. It is an antidote to the inflammatory and insensitive rhetoric that has surrounded devolution. This is the union in the service of the people for the people. The unnecessary delays and the fight provoked over the internal market by the Government, inspired largely by the Prime Minister’s former special advisor Mr Cummings, and the embarrassment that caused together with the difficulties in resolving it did not auger well for the work of this committee.
In Wales, progress has been made on the processes underpinning the common frameworks, on the strict understanding that this is without prejudice to the position taken in ongoing litigation commenced by the Counsel General for Wales challenging the United Kingdom Internal Market Act by way of judicial review, on the basis that the Act has not modified legislative competence or the ability to make different provision for Wales in the manner it purports to do. The Welsh Government have a hearing in January which challenges the lawfulness of aspects of the Act. Basically, it undermines the devolution legislation, and they think it is unlawful constitutionally. The case will be heard in the Court of Appeal. The Act has been a significant distraction and undermining of the discussions on the frameworks, which were intended to be collaborative and consensual and, to some extent, largely have been positive. However, the Act undermines this progress.
There are still issues regarding excluding frameworks from its reach, but in Wales the Welsh Government go further and say that it is unlawful in this respect, and they are engaging in discussions on agreements on a without prejudice basis, as I said. I am struck by the way in which Wales is leading the way once again on this challenge and finding solutions to problems.
The report recommends that the four Administrations should provide regular updates to their legislatures and public reporting as part of the planned reviews. However, there is still no proper political commitment to note updates on the frameworks to the UK Parliament, which again stands in contrast to the Welsh Government, who have regularly updated the Senedd on each framework.
The report highlighted this need for greater transparency in the common frameworks process and raised concerns about insufficient stakeholder consultation, as noted by my noble friend Lady Bryan of Partick. In evidence, Viviane Gravey, a lecturer in European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, argued that the common frameworks process was less transparent than the EU process it replaced and that
“EU directives were debated publicly in the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers, with stakeholders who could decide for themselves whether they felt they were affected, whether they wanted to speak about this topic and whether they wanted to influence it.”
What action are the Government taking to ensure that the common frameworks process is much more transparent and fully engages with stakeholders?
Furthermore, the committee recommended that the UK Government should publish a short justification for each policy area where they have decided to take no further action. The Government responded:
“Work is underway to provide further details on the process and rationale in the upcoming 2021 ‘Frameworks Analysis’ report.”
When is this framework analysis report likely to be published?
The committee also recommended that the UK Government should make up for the lack of involvement of stakeholders in the initial development of common frameworks by revising them based on stakeholders’ feedback. It also stated that parliamentary scrutiny of common frameworks will need to continue even after they have been finalised, to ensure that important policy decisions are made transparently. How will the Government ensure that Parliament is able to fully scrutinise the operation of individual frameworks in specific policy areas?
The committee notes in the report that
“relations between the four administrations of the UK are in a particularly poor state, and that UK intergovernmental relations need to be reset.”
I again ask the Minister what tangible action has been taken since the report was published and since the Government last gave evidence to the committee?
I conclude with an extract of what my friend and colleague Mick Antoniw, the Consul General for Wales, said to the committee on 6 September:
“Anything that enables the four Governments to work better together in a more strategic way will be to the benefit of everyone. Whether that happens or not, as you say, is dependent on good will and trust, and whether this is a genuine process.”
I thank noble Lords for their expert and learned comments in this debate. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for moving this important Motion. I also pay tribute to her and other members of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, many of whom are here today. I appreciate their continued work to scrutinise UK common frameworks and, in particular, their excellent report, Common Frameworks: Building a Co-operative Union, which was published earlier this year.
The CFSC has added huge value to the wider common frameworks programme, and I thank its members for working so co-operatively with the Government over the past year. I am pleased to hear that it has been successful in its bid to continue its valuable work into 2022. The Government look forward to continuing to work with the committee in the coming months.
In response to the questions asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Bryan of Partick, about who is responsible for this within the Government, I can be clear that my honourable friend Neil O’Brien has taken over this role in my new department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities —“Deluck” is the appropriate way of pronouncing the department’s acronym, DLUHC. He is now the Minister for Levelling Up, The Union and Constitution. Of course that is now under the oversight and strategic responsibility of my right honourable friend Michael Gove, who leads the department. They will continue to be supported by the very excellent officials in the common frameworks directorate, who I know work closely with the committee.
Noble Lords will be aware that since 2017, the UK Government and devolved Administrations have been working jointly to develop the UK common frameworks. Common frameworks establish a common approach to policy areas previously governed by European Union law which intersect with areas of devolved competence. Central to every framework is the agreement between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to work together to make better policy for citizens and businesses across the United Kingdom.
In the review of union capability published earlier this year, my noble friend Lord Dunlop set out that common frameworks prove that the United Kingdom Government and devolved Administrations
“can come together as partners in a common endeavour”.
It is that spirit of common endeavour that should ensure that frameworks maintain consistent rules and regulations for all across the United Kingdom. Furthermore, common frameworks should support citizens to make the most of the opportunities afforded to the UK following our exit from the European Union, and allow trading partners peace of mind.
Common frameworks have previously been described by the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee as representing
“an example of best practice for positive cooperation across the UK and have an important role to play in an evolving devolution settlement and in strengthening the Union”.
The UK Government consider strengthening the union as a key priority, as noble Lords will know. One of the central objectives of the newly formed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is to level up our towns and cities across the United Kingdom. The common frameworks programme has remained focused on upholding this by continuing to strengthen relations between the UK Government and devolved Administrations. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, rightly said in her article in PoliticsHome that
“the collaborative process of common frameworks can be held up as a model to build a stronger and cooperative union”.
Representing joint and collaborative ways of working, common frameworks have been developed carefully, drawing on industry stakeholder expertise from across the United Kingdom to establish effective ways of working. Under guidance from constitutional teams in the UK Government and devolved Administrations, policy departments have ensured that they engage with those directly affected by a framework during its development.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, my honourable friend Chloe Smith set out previously that UK common frameworks are “ways of working” documents, as opposed to policy documents, so the nature of any stakeholder engagement may differ slightly from one framework to another. Common frameworks are also designed to be adaptable enough to endure as society, the regulatory environment, and the economy change. To enable such changes, the relevant Administrations will continue to review and monitor frameworks on a regular basis and engage with the relevant industry and parliamentary stakeholders as appropriate.
Of the 152 broad areas where powers returning from the EU have a devolved intersect, for 32 of these areas the UK Government and the devolved Administrations have agreed that it is necessary to develop a common framework. The remaining 120 policy areas where no framework has been deemed to be required will continue to be monitored, and new frameworks developed if the need arises. Decisions on whether frameworks are required have been made, and will continue to be made, in agreement with the devolved Administrations in line with the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) principles that have guided the frameworks programme.
The Government welcome the CFSC report Common Frameworks: Building a Cooperative Union, published in March and the important recommendations it sets out. My honourable friend Chloe Smith, in her former role as the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, set out the Government’s response comprehensively to the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee in May, and I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to hear the committee’s thoughts in person today.
The CFSC has set out a number of recommendations regarding transparency with which the Government have either agreed or agreed in principle. The Government agree that transparency is a key priority for the programme, and I am happy to state that since the CFSC report was issued, four further provisional frameworks have been published to allow for parliamentary scrutiny and one full framework has been published following final ministerial clearances. The Government are keen to rapidly progress towards publishing the remaining frameworks, and at a quadrilateral meeting just prior to the UK ministerial reshuffle, the then Minister and her opposite numbers in the devolved Administrations agreed that on resolution of the remaining cross-cutting issues, Governments should progress towards sharing the remaining frameworks at pace with legislatures.
CFSC colleagues have mentioned the various cross-cutting issues, including the UK Internal Market Act and the Northern Ireland protocol, and the importance for all frameworks to clearly set out how they will interact, or be excluded from common frameworks. I agree that these are important issues, and I note that considerable work has been undertaken at pace to resolve such issues.
In recent months, work across the programme has continued at pace and with some notable successes, which demonstrate the continued value of working collaboratively across all four Administrations. As noble Lords will know, some of the greatest challenges in developing common frameworks have turned out to be the cross-cutting issues that affect many or all of the frameworks. These are: the ongoing review of intergovernmental relations; the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol; the interaction between frameworks and trade deals and other international obligations; and the way in which common frameworks intersect with the UK Internal Market Act. In particular, fully understanding the implications of the latter two issues and how they should be addressed in common frameworks has been the subject of much work throughout 2021. Indeed, the CFSC report makes distinct recommendations on the importance of ensuring that the UK Government and the devolved Administrations agree a means of using powers within the UKIM Act to create exclusions in areas covered by a common framework.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today and will try as quickly as possible to respond to the many points raised. The noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews, Lady Randerson, Lady Crawley, and, indeed, Lady Wilcox of Newport, all raised the issue of transparency. Transparency across the common frameworks programme is a priority for the Government. It is for this reason that throughout the development of each framework, they undergo industry-specific stakeholder engagement and then later parliamentary scrutiny under the UK Government and devolved legislatures.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, I clarify that common frameworks are not developing policy itself; rather, they establish intergovernmental ways of working, which noble Lords will recognise may therefore require differing levels of engagement. Thus far, the Government have conducted early framework development stakeholder engagement across all frameworks, bar two lesser-developed frameworks, and expect to further engage with many of those stakeholders as frameworks are published, and as and when any significant developments take place.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and my noble friend Lady Redfern, we agree that frameworks should be published upon receipt of appropriate ministerial clearances. Noble Lords will be aware that, as a four-nation programme, frameworks can be published only on joint agreement by all parties. As such, it would not be in keeping with the joint nature of the frameworks programme for the UK Government to publish anything unilaterally. To update noble Lords, prior to the recent ministerial reshuffle, Ministers from across the UK Government and devolved Administrations met and agreed to progress the frameworks programme at pace. Once the cross-cutting issues have been fully resolved, we will jointly publish the remaining frameworks.
The Government recognise the important role Parliament has in scrutinising UK common frameworks and welcome the CFSC recommendation that further scrutiny may be necessary once frameworks are implemented and future development takes place. It is important for me to clarify that, as frameworks cover a wide range of topic areas, each is being developed by a different UK government policy department jointly with its devolved Administration counterparts. As such, once a framework is fully implemented, any decision around future framework development, and therefore continued scrutiny, will be taken at departmental level.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, the Government intend to share the remaining frameworks with the CFSC to enable parliamentary scrutiny by the end of 2021. I expect that those frameworks with lesser intersects and with various cross-cutting issues will be sent first. This will be possible once they have been agreed or amended, but I recognise the frustrations around the delayed publication of provisional frameworks. The rest will follow shortly afterwards.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised two issues. Yes, there is an important role for the centre in co-ordinating things, but policy departments must also have a role, as they are the policy experts. In line with the recommendation that the Government should work closely with the devolved Administrations to develop a process for using these powers, government officials and their counterparts in the devolved Administrations are working closely to establish a process for making and evidencing such agreements. Ministers have also met to discuss progress and to chart a path forward. I also take this opportunity to extend my thanks to those in the devolved Administrations who have made great contributions to this work.
A number of noble Lords raised the Northern Ireland protocol; namely, the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady Andrews. I can provide an update on progress in certain areas, such as divergence. Common frameworks provide the right forum for discussions about how to best accommodate policy divergence in a way that works for the whole United Kingdom. Where proposals for divergence arise, the framework’s governance structures will ensure that views from all parties to the framework are taken into consideration.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, on reporting, the Government welcome the CFSC report’s recommendation to include processes for reporting on divergence. Once implemented, the policy teams will review their common framework regularly to ensure that it is updated according to changes made to any of the cross-cutting issues that intersect with it, including the protocol. Departments will take over full ownership of the framework, which will involve monitoring and reviewing it periodically, and engaging with legislatures and stakeholders, including giving updates on any divergence that has occurred. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, asked a question on divergence, and I hope I have covered most of her points, as best as I can.
I reassure my noble friend Lord Dunlop that the recommendations in his review align with the Prime Minister’s ambitions to strengthen the working of the union. We do not see these recommendations as distinct workstreams and many coincided with our existing thinking. We have made progress in implementing the vast majority of the recommendations, in some areas delivering above and beyond the scope. We incorporated many of the recommendations into the intergovernmental relations review. As the Prime Minister said in his letter to the First Ministers and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on 7 September, due to the
“hard work of ministers and officials”
in all four Administrations,
“we are now in a position to conclude”
the IGR and
“provide a new structure for … engagement”.
I will have to write to my noble friend on the specifics of transparency reporting.
In response to my noble friend Lady Redfern, the Government very much welcome the CFSC report’s recommendation to publish justifications for policy areas where it has been decided that no further action is required. In the coming weeks, we expect to publish the fourth iteration of the annual frameworks analysis, which will include an explanation for each policy area where a common framework is not currently required.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan of Partick, the EU exit resulted in returning powers in 152 areas where devolution also intersects. No framework is required in many areas as we believe that there is a low risk of divergence. Obviously, we will continue to review that position.
On the specific point raised by my noble friend Lady McIntosh on the progress on the Defra framework, Defra has provisionally agreed all 14 of its frameworks and one has been published for transparency. Defra frameworks have the biggest number of cross-cutting issues which are being worked through. As she will appreciate, that is quite a job of work to do.
There is broad agreement in this House that UK common frameworks are a helpful way to ensure the continued joint working across the United Kingdom by this Government and the devolved Administrations for the benefit of our businesses and, above all, our citizens. I look forward to continuing to work with this House and the noble Lords of the CFSC as we continue to deliver the common frameworks programme.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. He will know now, I think, why the committee is so formidable—formidable to chair and formidable in its questioning. I am conscious that a great number of questions were put to him this afternoon. I think there was quite a lot of good news in what he said, but we will have to read what he said carefully. It is of the utmost importance that we get the greatest clarity—and, frankly, the greatest enthusiasm—from the Government for the common frameworks.
The question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, is fundamental. The centre has a role here in making sure that the common frameworks are properly co-ordinated and driven in the right directions, in the right way and at the right speed, that they really work and make an optimum contribution to strengthening the union. We will watch very closely how the Minister’s department is going to manage them, and the level of transparency. I have absolute confidence in officials, and we are very grateful that we at least have the name of the Minister; I am sure that we will want to talk to him as soon as he is properly in place.
Many of my colleagues raised the character of the frameworks, saying that they look dull, technical and impenetrable. I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, and other noble Lords who have spoken that there is no such thing as an interloper in this debate: we welcome any interest shown by anybody from any part of the House, and well beyond. We have talked about the misleading nature of the frameworks. They are so much more than the sum of their parts, as they deal with huge constitutional issues and possibilities. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, spoke of them as constitutional innovations. They illuminate the lopsided nature of power in the UK, shining a new light on what is possible and necessary through devolution, and the risks of the state of the debate on devolution. These are huge historic themes, not small, technical adjustments. Since the issue has gone into the Department for Levelling Up, it will become confused with a whole range of other issues and imperatives.
Our imperative is to make sure that these frameworks, which were and may still be precarious—just as the existence of our committee might have been precarious—are maximised in their impact across the UK, for the benefit of the whole of the UK. We will hold Ministers’ feet to the fire and we will want to see what progress is being made, that faith is being kept, that transparency and quality is improved, that timetables are kept, and that the impact on the ground for delivery is as it should be. If there is divergence, it must be managed transparently and constructively.
Everything that my noble friend said about the position of Wales is absolutely true. The internal market Act was totally disruptive, and there was a very serious chance that the whole process would lose credibility. It did not—not least because of this committee’s work. That is the standard to which we will hold ourselves over the next year. We will be vigilant and pretty ruthless about what we expect in terms of behaviour from not just this department but all departments across government.
Committee adjourned at 8.11 pm.