Government Responsibility for the Union and Intergovernmental Relations

Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons on 27th October 2022.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

What discussions he has had with representatives from the devolved Administrations on recent changes in Government responsibility for the Union and inter- governmental relations.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

What discussions he has had with representatives from the devolved Administrations on recent changes in Government responsibility for the Union and intergovernmental relations.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The Union is at the heart of the Government’s work, from securing UK-wide growth to establishing freeports and supporting the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Central to that is working closely with colleagues in the devolved Governments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be continuing that work in his new role.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The previous Prime Minister, in her short tenure, managed to keep only one pledge: to ignore the Leaders of the devolved nations. The new Prime Minister has said that he wants to lead the most active UK-wide Government for decades, and also to respect devolved Governments. Will the Minister explain how this Government can claim to be respectful when the Prime Minister has pledged to circumvent Holyrood and undermine the devolution settlement even more than his predecessors?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I remind the hon. Lady that the previous Prime Minister did meet with First Ministers at events commemorating the Queen. We have also heard that the new Prime Minister has already spoken to the devolved leaders of Wales and Scotland and has made a firm commitment to work with our devolved Governments and to strengthen our precious Union. I am sure that he will continue to do that and, in doing so, will certainly have the support of Conservative Members.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

The Prime Minister believes that he is delivering on the mandate that his party won, with a minority of votes and a lower percentage than that won by the SNP in both recent elections as the source of his legitimacy. Does the Minister agree that, as the Prime Minister was not elected, not even by his own party members, the cornerstone of renewed intergovernmental relations must be respect for the mandates won by the actually elected First Ministers of devolved Governments?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As the Prime Minister made clear, we will continue to work with devolved Governments. This Government have a mandate from 2019. We also respect the mandates of the devolved Governments, which we will continue to do, including the mandate in Scotland from the independence referendum to remain part of this precious Union.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the new team of Ministers to their positions today. I am not alone in being worried about the effect of this Government chaos on the Union, specifically on what they will do in terms of Union activity. The Union has been treated as a departmental tennis ball. It has gone to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, then to the Cabinet Office, and then back to the Department for Levelling Up, and now, we hear, it is potentially staying there. Does that really suggest priority for the Union? The former Prime Minister did not call the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales during the entire time that she was in office. That says a lot. Will the Minister please explain to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland why this Tory Government treat our Union as a departmental tennis ball, instead of, as Labour would do, defending and building on our strong Union, which is a priority for everyone across our country?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I take the hon. Lady’s point but, of course, as we have said, the Prime Minister telephoned the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh devolved Governments on his very first night in office. If that does not show how much the Union is treated as a priority, I am not really sure what else can be done. On departmental work, it is very important that the Cabinet Office deals with the constitutional elements of that and to use its expertise to make sure that intergovernmental work is as effective as possible.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State and his team to their place.

It has been well documented that not once in her 45 days in office did the former Prime Minister pick up the phone to our First Minister. Indeed, such was her antipathy towards the nations of the UK that one of her first actions was to farm out responsibility for the Union and intergovernmental affairs from No. 10 to the Cabinet Office. I am pleased that the new Prime Minister has talked about a good working relationship and that he has called Nicola Sturgeon. Does this mean that responsibility for the Union and intergovernmental affairs will now return to Downing Street, or will it stay with the Cabinet Office? If it does stay with the Cabinet Office, what does it intend to do with it?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister remains in charge of elements relating to the Union. More than 200 intergovernmental ministerial meetings took place between just January and September of this year, and the focus of those engagements was on issues including the Ukrainian conflict, delivering net zero, cost of living pressures, covid-19 recovery, freeports and myriad other matters. Transparency is key, and we will continue to publish quarterly and annual intergovernmental relations reports on gov.uk to give a snapshot of the activity and to allow the scrutiny that Members wish.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It seems that responsibility for the Union and the intergovernmental relationship has become a hot potato that is passed from Department to Department, because no one knows what it is or quite what to do with it. My suggestion to the new Secretary of State is that he uses his new responsibility to encourage the Prime Minister to respect the mandate the Scottish people gave last year, when they elected a pro-independence majority Government with a commitment to holding a referendum. Does he agree with what my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald said: that a Prime Minister who was rejected by his own party members but subsequently put into office, unelected, by the MPs on the Government Benches, denying the wishes of the Scottish people in a free and fair election, is an absolute disgrace?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Talking of free and fair elections is to undermine the tremendous democracy we live in and to show a lack of appreciation of what we have. The Prime Minister has continually referred to the result of the 2019 general election and mentioned his commitment to the 2019 manifesto we were elected on. We respect the devolved Governments; as I have said the Prime Minister spoke to those devolved leaders on his very first day in office and he will continue to do so. However, if we are talking about mandates, there is still the mandate in Scotland from the independence referendum. We are very firm on that, and we will continue to support it and prioritise the Scottish people rather than playing politics and navel gazing at this point in time.