Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the recent (1) local elections, and (2) Northern Ireland Assembly elections, what plans they have to set up a commission to consider options for a new constitutional relationship for the four nations of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I am truly delighted to open this debate with the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, in the Chair—at least for these few moments.
The recent elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland underline the stark political differences between the two nations and the Province on the one hand, and the largest nation in these islands, England, on the other. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, for the first time became the largest party in the Assembly. I only hope that devolved government will soon be functional there. In Scotland, the SNP continues to dominate elections, as it has for 15 years: it gained control of one additional council. In Wales, Labour gained control of one council and now controls eight in total; Plaid Cymru gained three councils and now controls four; 10 have no overall control. In England, however, although Labour and the Liberal Democrats had some gains, the Tories, despite difficulties here at Westminster, still control 35 councils. The contrast is stark.
In both Wales and Scotland, the Conservatives do not control a single council. In Anglesey, with a Tory MP, Plaid Cymru increased its number of councillors from 14 to 21 to gain control. The Conservatives fought every ward and won no seat. YouGov polls suggest that the Tories would now lose most of their Welsh MPs. In some elections, as recently as 2001, not a single Tory won a seat in Wales. Since 1867 there has never been a majority of Conservative MPs in Wales, yet for two-thirds of that time Wales was governed by Tory Governments we did not elect and whose priorities were not ours.
Misgivings with the present constitutional settlement have, over the past decade, triggered an escalating movement for greater independence. These include the perception that devolved powers are being clawed back by Westminster. On Monday I had the First Reading of my Private Member’s Bill, which I think is available today, addressing this issue.
Secondly, there is the manner in which Wales has been short-changed on the pledge that the pre-Brexit structural and social funds would be maintained. In fact, in this three-year period we shall be £770 million poorer.
Thirdly, there is the way in which appointments to senior Civil Service positions in Wales are controlled centrally, with the danger that people lacking a knowledge of Wales are parachuted into key jobs. Wales needs its own integrated public service career structure.
Fourthly, when independent commissions recommend additional powers for Wales’s Senedd—the Silk commission recommended devolved police powers and the report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, recommended changes in the legal framework in Wales—their recommendations are simply ignored by UK Governments.
Such arrogance drives people to consider political independence. Today Wales looks more to its own Senedd for the way forward, reflecting our own priorities, values and aspirations. Never was this more clearly seen than in the Welsh Government’s handling of the Covid crisis. The overwhelming majority in Wales believe that our Senedd, Labour led with Plaid support, did a better job than the Boris Johnson Government.
This growing confidence in our own institutions led to growth in the YesCymru cross-party independence campaign. Opinion polls have indicated that up to 39% are tempted by the notion of full independence. The Senedd has established its own commission, chaired by former Archbishop Rowan Williams and Professor Laura McAllister, to explore future relationships between the nations of these islands. One reason for this is the prospect of Scotland becoming an independent country. Thereafter, Westminster would be endlessly ruled by right-wing Governments anathema to Wales. If Scotland quits the union, many believe that Wales will soon follow.
The Scottish electorate have shown consistently since 2007 that they support SNP-led Governments. Their Government at Holyrood have a mandate for another independence referendum, which should be honoured within the lifetime of this Westminster Parliament. If the SNP’s mandate is thwarted by Westminster, unionist parties could be wiped out in Scotland in the next UK general election. A referendum could no longer be denied, particularly if the SNP holds the balance of power in the Commons. If that resulted in a majority for independence, the UK Government would surely have to deliver.
Northern Ireland may conceivably, in the foreseeable future, have a majority for reunification. For that to be acceptable to unionists, there would surely have to be no barriers to the movement of Irish people, goods and money to and fro to Scotland, Wales and England. This too would be the sentiment for Scotland and Wales regarding their relationship with England. Nobody in their right minds, anywhere in Britain, would want to rebuild Offa’s Dyke or Hadrian’s Wall to isolate England from Wales and Scotland. Whatever the ultimate constitutional settlement between our respective nations, there should always be free movement of people, goods and money, with no greater barriers than there are today between Luxembourg and Belgium, or between Ireland and the north of Ireland.
Whether Scotland votes for independence before or after the UK elections, parties at Westminster should consider alternative models for independence, how they would work, and their respective merits and drawbacks. The worst possible scenario would be for Westminster politicians to play a collective game of King Canute, ignoring the new geopolitics of these islands.
With the reunification of Ireland and a pro-independence vote in Scotland at least possibilities, where does that leave Wales? Although Wales currently has no majority for independence, the departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland might well change attitudes.
With these scenarios at least a possibility—some say a probability—I ask the Government whether they intend to sit back and let events dictate policy, as happened with Ireland a century ago, or should there be serious study of alternative models for the post-independence relationship of the nations of these islands? Some colleagues, particularly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, favour a federal constitution for the United Kingdom, but would this be a federation of four nations each with parity, leaving England outvoted by the other three, or weighted by population, leaving the others always outvoted by England? If it were based on English regions, Wales and Scotland would hardly warm to such a status.
Another model makes more sense to me: a confederal approach, in which sovereignty of the three nations and the Province is acknowledged, but they pool their sovereignty for certain purposes—for example, the recognition of the Queen as the head of a Britannic confederation. Plaid Cymru and the SNP currently accept the monarchy as the Head of State, recognising a Britannic dimension to our identity as well as our own national identity. Secondly, there might be an acceptance of sterling as the currency and a reconstituted Bank of England acting as a central bank for a confederation. Thirdly, there is scope for defence co-operation. The SNP supports an independent Scotland being part of NATO, though this is obviously complicated by the question of nuclear weapons. There is surely a pragmatic solution to enable defence co-operation.
The central issue relates to the free movement of goods across the nations of these islands. I accept, sadly, that Brexit will not be reversed in the immediate future, but there is a way forward with not only a free-trade area between the three nations of Britain but, if we include Northern Ireland, a free-trade agreement with the EU itself. That offers a solution to the cross-border Irish problem and could unlock the present impasse, which is threatening stability and peace in Northern Ireland.
I realise that a stumbling block may be Brussels’ insistence on European court jurisdiction, but is it impossible to devise a sui generis new court structure to deal with a confederal Britain? Might there be a parallel court comprised of representatives of the Britannic confederation, the European court and even the Dublin Government with an independent chair, possibly from a country such as Switzerland? That would not only facilitate the Britannic free trade area but safeguard free trade with the EU and solve current difficulties faced by Northern Ireland. This is surely worth exploring now in its own right.
I come to my main objective: to seek a commission to consider the future constitutional relationships of these islands and, in particular, the practicality of a confederal model for the co-operation of the three independent nations, its implications for Ireland and the possibility of a free trade area with the European Union. This commission should be asked to report within 18 months. Many commissions have considered similar issues over the past century. I appeared before Lord Kilbrandon’s commission in 1969 and Lord Richard’s in 2003. I hope this practical suggestion will be considered by the Government. It offers a positive way forward. We have a mutual interest in finding a constructive solution to the constitutional challenges facing the countries of Britain. I invite noble Lords to be equally positive in their response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for securing this debate. I was moved to speak as I felt it was important that there is a Scottish voice. It is a lost opportunity that, unlike Plaid Cymru, the SNP does not feel moved to send representatives to our House. There is nothing the SNP wants more than a new constitutional relationship with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The recent local elections and the subsequent council administration pacts illustrate again how divided Scotland remains along constitutional lines. I take issue, however, with the interpretation of the results of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. The unionist vote is split among the three unionist parties, hence the SNP always seems biggest. The SNP has a woeful record at both local and national level, but its relentless promise of a second referendum, the politicisation of our flags and, frankly, the othering of those who do not share its constitutional view plays to its supporters but continues to divide us.
I led a debate on Scotland in the Chamber on 9 December last year. I commend to noble Lords the contribution that afternoon by my noble friend Lord Dunlop, he of the report. His key message was about getting the tone right. If we want to see a cohesive and co-operative union, he urged
“a culture change from a Whitehall used to issuing directives”.—[Official Report, 9/12/21; col. 2029.]
This Platinum Jubilee weekend was a good time to consider the cohesiveness of the union. I find myself drawn to the New Statesman and a very good article by Helen Thompson, who says:
“Like the Union, the monarchy works”
best when it is allowed, “in all its complexity”, simply to carry on. The monarchy is a shining example of how to successfully navigate the differing nuances of the four nations, celebrating our distinctiveness while acting as a unifier.
Whatever our differences, most Scottish people want the Scottish and UK Governments to work together to ensure the best possible outcomes for everyone. I therefore urge the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government to look first to Westminster. I would like to see a “union filter” applied to every bit of legislation and policy published, but I fear this does not always happen in practice. Too much centralised power is as dangerous in Westminster as it is in Edinburgh. We cannot do anything about the unrelenting focus of Edinburgh on pursuing constitutional change, but let us not do the SNP’s job for it.
We do not need to open the Pandora’s box of a constitutional commission. As Covid and the vaccine rollout demonstrated, the structures for co-operation are already in place; it is just politics that is getting in the way.
My Lords, I have worked with the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for the benefit of the people of Wales, I hope, for nearly 35 years and I have much respect for him, but I am not tempted by independence for Wales. I agree with him that there is a movement which goes towards that direction, but by no means anything like what is happening in Scotland. However, the thrust of the noble Lord’s speech was about the improvement of relations between the relevant parts of the United Kingdom and that is absolutely spot-on. The landscape has changed dramatically: he mentioned the situation in Wales, where there is now a legislative assembly called the Senedd; in Scotland, the SNP is of course dominating affairs; and in Northern Ireland, the Assembly and the other institutions are, unfortunately, currently suspended, but it has changed.
Many years ago, I held Cabinet responsibility for intergovernmental relations between the different Parliaments—very primitively in those days. It was not very good, to be honest, and over the last 20 years has got worse, if anything. The Whitehall departments still do not quite understand what devolution is all about. I sometimes think some government Ministers are ignorant of what devolution is all about, although the landscape has in fact changed dramatically.
I very much welcome the excellent report of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop. There were some very good ideas in it. I welcome Michael Gove’s latest report, also excellent, on how to improve the intergovernmental committee and all the various ministerial committees that exist between the devolved Administrations of these islands. What could be improved is to have more reliance on the institutions of the Good Friday agreement—for example, strand 2 on the north-south relations in Ireland, strand 3 on relations east and west, and the British-Irish Council, which was set up by the Good Friday agreement. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference could be dealing with the issue of the protocol but it is not at the moment. There are institutions set up by the Good Friday agreement which could be used to improve relations between the various parts of our country.
I think your Lordships are aware that there is a commission in Wales looking at the constitution at the moment, chaired by Rowan Williams—Lord Williams. I gave evidence to it some weeks ago. It is an excellent committee and will come up with some very interesting suggestions. The Government of Wales are already looking at how the Welsh Parliament, the Senedd, is to be elected and the Labour Party has a commission, of which I am a member, led by Gordon Brown on what might be the nature of these intergovernmental relations in future. So although we do not have, as I think we should, a government-sponsored United Kingdom commission to look at those relationships, work has been done in Cardiff and in the Labour Party. I hope that the Minister can assure your Lordships that the Government are seriously looking at whether a commission could be used for the rest of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for securing this important and timely debate. It deals with an issue that we need to continue highlighting.
Last month’s local government elections in the UK have given many of us food for thought. The Conservatives lost around 500 seats across the UK and nearly half of their seats in Wales, where they now control no councils at all. Conwy County, where I live, sums up their situation: they saw their total number of councillors halved, to five, and their further 42 candidates failed to gain seats. This is in a constituency with a Conservative MP, a Conservative Member of the Senedd, a fully staffed office and seemingly unlimited funds to spend on their campaign.
As I said in my response to the gracious Speech, with such election results I query whether this Government can still claim to have a mandate for their policies in Wales. Their policies have damaged our devolution settlement, undermined the powers of the Senedd, depleted funds available to the Senedd for economic projects and led to an upsurge in those considering opting to vote for independence in any future referendum.
The election results in Northern Ireland bring a border poll ever closer. In Scotland, the pro-independence SNP gained further seats. Voters in the devolved nations are disenchanted by the aggressive unionism on offer from this Government. They find nothing attractive in it and feel that they are faced with a binary choice between this and seeking independence.
From these Liberal Democrat Benches, we would support the setting up of a commission to examine the constitutional relationship for the four nations. Our vision, of course, is of a federal United Kingdom based on a stable, long-term framework in which real power is exercised by and within empowered nations, together with the regions and local communities. Although I will always be grateful to the Tony Blair Government for beginning the devolution process that I hold dear, I regret that our destination has never really been clear. There has never been a route map to guide us. Perhaps a commission at some point might have helped. Crucially, there has never been a place for England in the devolution process.
The UK is an unequal and unbalanced union, and a union that is beginning to fracture. In the words of WB Yeats:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.
If we believe that our political centre cannot hold, it is our duty as politicians to examine alternative structures and present them to the electorate to enable them to make informed choices—a process that the Welsh Government have already begun for the people of Wales in the form of a constitutional commission.
My Lords, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, on securing this debate, which focuses on the establishment of a commission to consider options for a new constitutional arrangement and relationship.
I come from Northern Ireland, where we have just had Assembly elections. They have led simply to further division, with no government institutions up and running. I say to the Minister that it is incumbent on both the British and Irish Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement—as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, the agreement contains all the various aspects of a British/Irish, north/south and internal arrangement in Northern Ireland and therefore provides the facility for an embryonic commission—to ensure that those institutions are up and running to provide the necessary devolution that the people of Northern Ireland require, where local decision-making on a partnership basis can take place.
Sadly, because of the DUP’s opposition to the protocol, we do not have consent for the institutions, whether the Assembly, the Executive, the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council or the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that they could provide some solutions if discussion and dialogue took place between the parties that should be forming the Executive in Northern Ireland—along with the SDLP, which will be in opposition, and both Governments. Of course, we could also add in the EU to provide the necessary information and encourage willingness to compromise in this instance.
I come at this as a democratic Irish nationalist who wants to see the people of Ireland united in a totally reconciled new Ireland. The provision for that is already in the framework of the Good Friday agreement. We must use the framework of the agreement and the institutions to build that necessary partnership, with power-sharing and mutual understanding—all the ingredients that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, discussed and which he was part of as one of the negotiators of that agreement.
I say to the Government that, rather than talking about legislation to disapply parts of the protocol, they must re-energise negotiations with the EU to achieve a resolution to the technical details in the protocol. I asked a Written Question: what technical meetings took place and what technical meetings have taken place since February of this year? We know that no technical meetings have taken place, but in the Answer I got a list of all the meetings that took place from September last year. They were simply fly-in meetings of the then-Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and Maroš Šefčovič. But we need the people involved in the technical details to work out resolutions to the issues to allow our economy to blossom.
Consent and agreement are key to building trust and partnership, whether we are talking about the resolution of difficulties with the protocol or the resolution that will enable the institutions to be up and running. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, the facility lies within the Good Friday agreement because of all the institutions it provides for the relationships between Britain and Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and within Northern Ireland, and to help build good further relationships between these islands—notwithstanding where I lie in terms of democratic Irish nationalism.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for enabling us to have this debate. I agree with him about the need to set up a commission and consider options for a new constitutional relationship for the four nations of the United Kingdom. I want to add to that list the urgent need for a devolution settlement for the regions and sub-regions of England. Doing that requires a commission.
As my noble friend Lady Humphreys has just said, there has never been a place for England in the devolution process and there needs to be one. In three of the countries, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we currently have a block grant system, and we need a block grant system for the regions and sub-regions of England, to be controlled and managed more locally. To do that requires a commission to examine the options. You cannot run England out of Whitehall; it is simply too big. All the key decisions impacting on England are taken in Whitehall on a hub-and-spoke model in which Whitehall is the hub and elected mayors of combined authorities become the spokes. They compete with each other for resources at a time when budgets are being cut.
My attention was drawn to a report from March this year by the Institute for Government on the theory and practice of the Barnett formula. I will quote two paragraphs from it.
“Our view is that, in principle, Barnett should be replaced by a system that shares out resources in line with a clearly stated set of funding principles, applied consistently and transparently to devolved governments across the UK and to the cities and regions of England”.
I agree entirely. We have now reached a point where this has become essential. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to the shared prosperity fund and the figure of—I think I quote him rightly—£770 million lost to Wales as part of the loss of direct European funding. Of course, that has impacted on England. It would be helpful if the Government wrote to Members taking part in this short debate to explain what has happened to the loss of ERDF and ESF funding because it is very serious for the rest of the UK and, in respect of what I am trying to argue, for the regions and sub-regions of England. They have also all lost the six-year programming they had from European structural funding.
I am very concerned about how decisions are made in Whitehall. On the shared prosperity fund, yesterday the Public Accounts Committee said clearly that the total sum is lower than the European funding produced by the ERDF and ESF, so some facts and figures from the Government would be helpful. The Public Accounts Committee criticised the ill thought-out levelling-up plans through the allocation of funding yesterday, saying they were “unsatisfactory”. One reason for that is the excessive central control exercised by the Government.
I am sorry; we have no clocks in front of us—that is the problem. In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, talked of the stark political differences there are now. He talked of the clawing-back of devolved powers and he is absolutely right. That commission is needed more urgently than it has been for many years.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Griffiths on his willingness to stand in the breach to chair so brilliantly. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. He and I were on very different sides in the 1970s, when Plaid had a more separatist agenda and I was a member of the so-called gang of six. There has been a degree of convergence since and I am delighted to debate this issue with him. It is topical and timely now, because of the number of initiatives under way, as has been said.
I make a simple point: no institution is static; all institutions are dynamic. No one seriously expects the current settlement between the different nations of the United Kingdom to be the same in, say, five years. There will be some form of development, so the question is: in what form and what direction will it take? Will it be ad hoc, modest, incremental and with no end in sight? Or will it be a more radical project, as perhaps envisaged in the initiative taken by the Government of Wales? That is the basic subject of our debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, called for options, but we all know what they are. There is a whole spectrum of options. If the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and I were to sit down together, we would say that at one end of the spectrum is independence; at the other is the status quo. There is a whole series of steps in between. I am personally inclined to favour the more federal or quasi-federal system, perhaps a more ad hoc or à la carte one, as in Spain. That is something I think should be examined well.
I will not touch on the human rights Act the Government are proposing, as I think they could run into great difficulties with the European Convention on Human Rights.
I make one final point: we have been here before. I am old enough to recall the Crowther-Kilbrandon report of 1969 and 1973, which clearly set out the options in parts 5 to 8. That commission, with all the good of the people who put their best endeavours and expertise together, has been forgotten. It is hardly a footnote in an academic treatise. There are surely some lessons for us: we should not be concerned about just options, but the political will to deliver any options around which a consensus may form.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for his deeply committed introduction to this debate. I acknowledge his long-standing campaigning for devolved government in the other place, in the then Welsh Assembly and across the length and breadth of the lovely land of Wales—my own homeland.
In May 1945 Winston Churchill wrote to Clement Attlee suggesting the continuation of the wartime coalition and putting the suggestion to the people by means of a referendum. Mr Attlee replied:
“I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum”.
As a balance in this debate, I offer the Economist from April and its leader headlined “These septic isles”. It was blunt and severe, but it calls for a new constitutional settlement. I quote:
“Relations with Westminster are dysfunctional … Under devolution, powers were crudely handed out around the United Kingdom, but the politics favour blaming the centre rather than working with it … Under New Labour, the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast were meant to bring bread-and-butter issues … before each country’s voters. Instead such issues are neglected, because elections are dominated by unresolved arguments about the constitution.”
Let us have the commission, but please get on with making the lives of ordinary citizens better. Our schools and the health service are urgent priorities.
Today the Cardiff Senedd offers good, honourable governance of integrity. It should be proud of its two decades of social and economic advances. It was a brilliant, seamless transfer of constitutional powers from London to Cardiff. It deserves a renewed vote of confidence. Devolution is here to stay; it is irreversible, and surely much more is to come. These two decades of powers are but an eye-blink in Wales’s national history.
Commissions there have been aplenty, but how often are their proposals effected? Harold Wilson said, smiling wickedly, that commissions decided upon in minutes take years to report. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, that Professor Helen Thompson, in the current issue of the New Statesman, emphasises:
“The Crown and the military are still the most important symbols of Britishness.”
It is a fact that Mr Gordon Brown, at the request of the party chairman and high command, is examining devolution and constitutional change. I bet he proposes more devolved government and further constitutional change. I guess that change refers to your Lordships’ House also; he is mindful of my noble friend Lady Jay’s defenestration of some 600 aristocrats not so long ago. Lastly, my further guess is that Her Majesty’s Opposition will largely espouse Mr Brown’s findings in their manifesto. A changed Government after the general election would, in all likelihood, embrace devolutionary and constitutional advances.
My Lords, I feel I should declare some positions: the England and Wales Green Party has long championed a Cornwall assembly, a Yorkshire assembly or parliament and similar around the rest of England; the Welsh Green Party has said it will campaign for independence should a referendum be called; and the Scottish Greens have long been pro-independence.
Having put those cards on the table, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, both for securing this debate and for his creative, positive introduction to it. I particularly thank him for the chance to celebrate the local election results, which were truly spectacular for the Green Party. One of the outcomes is that there are now 18 councils, as well as the one council we run, in which we are part of some form of rainbow coalition—groupings of a number of parties working together co-operatively for the common good.
These are usually classified as councils under “no overall control”. One thing I would like to highlight is that we really need to rephrase that terminology and look at these as councils in co-operative operation, where people are working together to govern. This is a very different model from the traditional model of British governance and, I argue, demonstrably a far better one. To suggest some of the places I happen to know about where this is working well, Lewes is a particular highlight. In diverse places such as Herefordshire and Sheffield, this is working well.
Of course, in Scotland we have Green Party Ministers. I will pick up a point from the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, who suggested that there was perhaps an exclusionary model of Scottish nationalism. The nationalism championed by the Green Party is very much a civic, inclusive nationalism—one that acknowledges that the Syrian refugee who arrived last week is as much a part of the community as anybody else. Maybe England could learn from that form of nationalism.
It is clear from this debate that pretty well everyone agrees that what we have now is broken. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Jones, just mentioned the Economist, the Government promised in their manifesto to have a commission, and the Labour Party would have a commission. We have heard a lot of suggestions, but even the commission, which would be a positive step forward, is still very much the establishment rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic: the great and the good sit in a room like this, possibly under some dreadful art like in this room, and decide how to rearrange things.
I have an alternative proposal. Let us have a people’s constitutional convention, an assembly that represents all the peoples of these isles—of course, we could have them at different levels in the nations as well—and collectively allow the people to democratically decide how we should change, start from scratch and redraw our currently totally outdated, dysfunctional, unworkable constitutional arrangements between the nations and, indeed, in this House and the other place et cetera. We need change. Let us not draw up the changes; let us let the people decide.
My Lords, I am a shooting star for a minute and a half, with due thanks to my noble friend Lord Wigley.
In the time that I have been in your Lordships’ House, I have noticed a number of measures moving through to completion that had constitutional dimensions to them. Therefore, I feel that a situation we thought we understood has, either by accretion or erosion, been sometimes quite severely affected. What I pick up from the Question as central to a need felt more keenly now than it could have been before is that we need to take time out to have a convention—call it what you like—where we look at what is happening in a situation where, if we are honest, power is not only held and disposed of centrally but disposed of by the Executive at the expense of other aspects of government.
Granted the anomalous situations that exist in Scotland and in Wales, and ominous possibilities of what might or might not happen in Ireland, this should be a moment where we stand apart and take a good look at what has become of us. I would like the methodology that underpins such a convention to resemble more what happened to bring the Good Friday agreement into being in Northern Ireland: namely, endless talks behind and out of sight to achieve something that gives us an opportunity to create ideas we can live with.
I do not think a debate of this kind, for all the worthiness of some of the things put forward, can possibly achieve the outcomes we are looking for, but it can hint at something. I end simply by taking other lines of WB Yeats’s poem that was partly quoted earlier. Yes, it is true that “Things fall apart”, and “The centre cannot hold”. It is true that
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Was there ever a description of now better than that, although it is 100 years old? Was there ever a statement of how things are that better describes our need radically to look at where we are and how we can move forward, with trust and respect, one for another?
My Lords, I must declare an interest as I had a memo published in the Kilbrandon commission’s report; one can find it in the second half of volume 10. That shows my age.
It is a huge disappointment to us all that the commitment in the 2019 Conservative manifesto to hold a commission on the constitution is one of the many promises that our Prime Minister has broken. We need one; there is general agreement here that we need one. It is a huge disappointment that we have such a London-based Government. The resentment against them is not only in Scotland, Wales and parts of Northern Ireland; we are increasingly seeing it in the north and south-west of England.
It is a puzzle for many of us that the most devolved part of England is London itself. It has more powers than the regions and allows two levels of representative government, whereas we in Yorkshire are told that we all must have only one level. The new model for this absurd, single-tier government that has just been imposed on North Yorkshire was very reluctantly accepted by the people there.
The assertive, aggressive unionism that this Government respect is as disastrous as the unionism represented in the 1880s and 1890s. The extent to which AV Dicey, the authority on Westminster sovereignty, was quoted to me last year by a government Minister as defining our approach to sovereignty, governing this Government’s assumption that they are allowed to tell everyone what to do, is part of what is wrong. Remember that AV Dicey wrote what he wrote because he was avowedly against Irish home rule and aggressively unionist. What did it lead to? The division of Ireland and nearly a civil war.
That is where we are. I recognise that Boris Johnson is very much part of the problem. Last weekend, I was talking on the phone to one of my Scottish relations, who I know voted Liberal Democrat in the local elections in Edinburgh. He said to me, “If he’s still there in three or four years’ time, I know which way I’ll vote in another referendum”. That is there—the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, knows it—in the way a lot of people in Scotland think. I am going up to Scotland tonight; I have no doubt that, tomorrow, lots of people will tell me much the same thing. We need to address this. We cannot ignore the problem.
I merely wish to add that resentment in the regions of England about what is going on is also rising. If you saw the Yorkshire media’s response to the integrated rail strategy provisions, you will have seen the extent to which the assumption is that everything is done for London: “You don’t begin to understand what happens in the north and you’ve cut down the degree of autonomy that we thought we had, even in local government”. We need a constitutional commission. We need to consult as widely as possible, using citizens’ consultations, if we are to hold this country together. We should not ignore the real possibility that the United Kingdom could disintegrate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for securing this debate and introducing it so eloquently. It has been a pleasure to listen to the debate and hear from noble Lords with such extensive experience of championing devolution.
Ron Davies, a former Secretary of State for Wales, once said:
“Devolution is a process, not an event.”
The successes of devolution, but also the immense challenges facing it, are only too evident today. It has now been a month since the Northern Ireland Assembly elections and voters are still without a functioning Assembly or Executive. With Parliament currently considering multiple pieces of Northern Ireland legislation, including Bills that we hoped and expected would be debated in Stormont, there could not be a more timely moment for today’s debate.
For all the reasons we have heard today, the Labour Party is looking closely at the future of devolution. Labour is currently operating a constitutional commission to consider the future of our United Kingdom and how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level. This commission is considering all parts of the United Kingdom and will focus on delivering real, lasting economic and political devolution across our towns and communities and to people across the country. It is crucial that we are ambitious about the future of devolution. We need the Government to treat this with the care and thoughtfulness it deserves—not, as has proved the case too often in recent years, as an afterthought.
As well as in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we need to look at unleashing the potential across the English regions. The Government must make sure that powers coming back from Brussels are not centralised in Westminster but shared across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. They must also hear from, and work with, our great mayors and council leaders, using their experience and ideas to guide next steps. We must always make the positive case for devolution and champion the process, but also consider how we can strengthen the relationships and co-operation which underlie the union.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fraser, cited Professor Helen Thompson’s article about the monarchy and how the union must also “carry on”. My point to the Minister on this issue is that we need to give it due respect, consideration and attention. We cannot carry on as normal. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and, more importantly, the plan. We want to hear the plan that the Government will bring forward to address this very important and timely issue.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for securing a debate on this incredibly important topic. The Constitution Committee recently published its report on the union of the United Kingdom and, in addition to the points raised in that report, it has been very interesting for me to hear the contributions from noble Lords.
I take issue with the idea that there is an aggressive form of unionism. This Government are really committed to strengthening the union of the United Kingdom, protecting and promoting its combined strengths and the values that we all share, and ensuring that the institutions of the United Kingdom are used to benefit people in every part of the country, building on hundreds of years of partnership and a shared history since the Acts of Union.
We are also great believers in devolution, and that it allows communities across the four nations to reap the benefits of the broad shoulders of the union, while benefiting from decisions being placed closest to those who they affect. We remain committed to working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations to support people across the whole of the UK. As my noble friend Lady Fraser put it, we have the structures in place and now need to focus on getting the tone right. The arrangements agreed in the intergovernmental relations review herald a new era for collaboration across the United Kingdom, facilitating the sharing of experiences and learning. I point out that there were 110 ministerial meetings in the first quarter of this year alone and 440 such meetings last year, so collaboration is strong.
We are focusing across the United Kingdom to deliver better outcomes for citizens to tackle the shared challenges that we face, from providing up to £400 billion in Covid support for individuals, business and public services to close collaboration on the approach to settling the Ukrainian refugee issue. We should recognise that the Autumn Budget had the first allocation of the UK-wide growth funds, including the levelling-up fund and community ownership fund. That provided the largest annual block grants, in real terms, of any spending review settlement since the devolution of 1998.
I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that the UK shared prosperity funding for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland matches the size of the ERDF and the ESF in real terms, when it is fully ramped up to 2025. I reject the notion of any kind of power grab; there is 25% more per person for the Scottish Government, 20% more per person for the Welsh Government and 21% more per person for the Northern Ireland Executive, when we look at UK government spending over the SR21 period.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on looking seriously at any of the independent commissions, we will continue to make sure that constitutional arrangements remain fit for purpose. Instead of a single commission, we are already taking forward separate workstreams, such as the Judicial Review and Courts Act, and delivery of the Dunlop review. The noble Lords, Lord Khan and Lord Wigley, and others mentioned the Welsh constitution commission. The Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister for Levelling Up, the Union and Constitution have given evidence to that commission, and we are looking forward to heading its findings in due course.
The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, raised the importance of using the structures of the Good Friday agreement and ensuring that they are used to get the Administration up and running again. The institutions of the Good Friday agreement are up and running and the next British-Irish Council is on 7 July. The focus should be on wider issues such as the cost of living. That is what the polling suggests.
We recognise that collaboration is at the heart of the Government’s core mission for the whole of the United Kingdom. That is reflected in our levelling-up White Paper. We recognise that in Northern Ireland it is vital that the parties form an Executive as soon as possible. We are very keen that that is through negotiation but, if not, we are looking at other ways of dealing with that.
Finally, I thank noble Lords on all sides of the Committee for their contributions today. I know it has been hard to stick to time without a clock, but we have managed to get through the debate in the allotted time. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for securing this incredibly important debate.