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(Maiden Speech) My Lords, it is a great honour to open the debate today. I have the greatest respect for the wealth of knowledge and experience that exists within your Lordships’ House— wealth that is amply demonstrated by the list of speakers for this debate. It would be fair to say that entering this House and becoming a Minister at the same time is doubly daunting, so I am grateful for the warm welcome and advice I have received from noble Lords on all sides of the House and from the officers and staff.
To serve in the Scotland Office is a particular honour for me. My family has for many years been associated with Clydeside; indeed, my great-grandfather was Lord Provost of Glasgow during the First World War. Early in my career I worked for George Younger, a distinguished Scottish Secretary and later Member of this House. Three years ago I returned to government service after a gap of 20 years spent running my own business, and it was the tug of Scotland that brought me back at a momentous time in our country’s history. I recognise that there is unfinished business, and I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to serve in the Scotland Office.
I follow in the footsteps of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, as the Scotland Office spokesman in this House. Now that he sits on the other side of the House, I hope it will not be career limiting for either him or me to say that we worked well together in government. If I can discharge my duties in this House with half as much skill and dedication as the noble and learned Lord, I will feel I have served this House and this Government well.
I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who was for many years a distinguished servant of the other place, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds. They, like me, will be making their maiden speeches in today’s debate and I look forward to listening to their contributions. I also thank my noble friend Lord Faulks, who will be closing the debate.
Today’s debate brings together three issues—constitutional, legal and devolved affairs—and it is right that they are brought together. They reflect key aspects at the heart of the legislative programme set out in the gracious Speech—a programme founded on the idea of one nation, bringing fairness to all parts of our United Kingdom, where the people and institutions across this nation are treated with respect.
Let me say that although the Scottish National Party is not represented in this House, we will continue to be very mindful of its views. Last year’s Scottish referendum has caused much reflection on what previously had been taken for granted—the purpose of the United Kingdom in our modern world and what binds us together. The case for the United Kingdom is one that we must make in this House but also directly to the people of Scotland: the opportunities of our single, integrated domestic market; the solidarity that comes from pooling and sharing risks and resources in our social union; the protection of our common defence and security arrangements; the strength of having our own currency backed by the stability of the Bank of England; and all this bound together by values, experiences and history, shared by millions of people across our country.
Of course, the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements have evolved over time and been adapted to reflect the unique circumstances of the world’s most successful and enduring multination state, and they continue to evolve today. The Government are committed to establishing a stable resting place for the constitutional arrangements across our country—arrangements that provide the different nations of the United Kingdom with the space to pursue different domestic policies should they choose, while protecting and preserving the benefits of being part of the bigger UK family of nations.
At the heart of the legislative programme set out in the gracious Speech are measures to change how power is distributed across the UK and how decisions are taken—changes that will strengthen fiscal responsibility and accountability. In bringing forward these measures, the Government recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The devolution settlements reflect the distinct histories and circumstances of the different parts of the United Kingdom, and there is already a strong track record to build on.
In the last Parliament, the Government committed to devolving further powers to Scotland and Wales. These were delivered. We also worked with the Scottish Government to give people in Scotland a referendum. They voted clearly and decisively to stay within the UK. In this Parliament, we will move quickly to implement the further devolution that all parties agreed for Wales and Scotland and to deliver, too, the Stormont House agreement in Northern Ireland. Importantly, we will also address the issue of fairness for England. Delivering on these commitments is a fundamental matter of trust.
For Scotland, we have already introduced a Bill to deliver in full the Smith commission agreement, reached by all five of Scotland’s main political parties. The Scottish Parliament will become one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. The Bill will increase the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament through the devolution of income tax rates and bands, air passenger duty and assignment of VAT revenues. It will increase responsibility for welfare in areas that complement the Scottish Parliament’s existing powers. It will increase the scope for the Scottish Government to be more involved in the scrutiny of a range of public bodies and give significant new responsibility for roads, speed limits, onshore oil and gas extraction, and consumer advocacy and advice.
Scotland chose a united future in the United Kingdom. Now, the time is fast approaching when people in Scotland need clarity about how these new powers will be used and at what level the taxes will be set. That must be the next great debate in Scotland.
For Wales, we are committed to implementing the St David’s Day agreement in full. A Wales Bill will be introduced later in this Session. It will provide a new, reserved-powers model for Welsh devolution to help clarify the Assembly’s powers. It will devolve additional powers in areas such as transport, energy, the environment and local government, and enable the Assembly to decide how it organises itself and its elections and regulates its own proceedings. The Bill provides a robust package that will make the Welsh devolution settlement clear, sustainable and stable for the future.
The Stormont House agreement offers the prospect of a more prosperous, stable and secure future for Northern Ireland. It covers a wide range of issues:
welfare reform, fiscal sustainability, measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles and improvements to the working of devolution. It is disappointing that the Northern Ireland parties were unable to support the Welfare Reform Bill in the Assembly last week. That is a setback to delivery of the Stormont House agreement. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be meeting the Northern Ireland Executive parties tomorrow to establish how best to make progress.
However, the UK Government remain committed to delivering the elements of the Stormont House agreement for which they are responsible. We will therefore introduce a Bill to deliver a number of key commitments in the agreement to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. It will establish an independent body to take forward outstanding investigations into unsolved Troubles-related deaths. It will provide an independent commission to enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about the deaths of their next of kin, and establish an oral history archive for people from throughout the UK and Ireland to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles. These measures represent significant progress towards helping Northern Ireland deal with its past in a fair, balanced and proportionate way.
Of course, underpinning each of the settlements is funding. By moving to greater self-funding, and thus greater accountability, we are delivering mature and enduring settlements that provide incentives for economic growth. For Scotland, the devolution of further responsibility for taxation and public spending will be accompanied by an updated fiscal framework, as recommended by the Smith commission. The fiscal framework will encompass a number of elements and work alongside the Barnett formula to deliver a fair settlement for Scotland and the rest of the UK.
The Barnett formula will, of course, become less important as the Scottish Government become responsible for raising more of their own funding following the devolution of further tax powers. Negotiations with the Scottish Government on the fiscal framework are expected to proceed in parallel with the passage of the Bill, so there will be ample opportunity for your Lordships to consider the entirety of the new settlement.
For Wales, the UK Government will introduce a floor in the level of relative funding they provide to the Welsh Government. The details will be agreed at the next spending review in the expectation that the Welsh Government will call a referendum on income-tax powers in this Parliament.
December’s Stormont House agreement provided a very significant package of additional funding and budgetary flexibilities aimed at helping the Northern Ireland Executive put their finances on a sustainable footing for the future. It remains vital that the Northern Ireland parties get on with the commitments they made to implement the agreement, not least because moving forward on corporation-tax devolution clearly requires the Executive’s finances to be sustainable.Taken together, these measures will ensure a sustainable fiscal environment for the devolved Administrations and for the UK as a whole.
As we take forward our planned changes to the devolved settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would not be right to neglect the needs of England. The Government have announced plans to decentralise power in England to help bring about a balanced economic recovery. However, greater decentralisation within England does not provide an answer to how Parliament operates to better reflect the principle of English consent. Therefore, the Government will bring forward proposals for the authorities in the other place to consider. These will ensure that distinct decisions affecting England can be taken only with the consent of the majority of MPs from English constituencies. These proposals are necessary to strengthen England’s voice in the law-making process, just as devolution has strengthened the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within our United Kingdom.
Successive Governments have grappled with the West Lothian question. This will be the one who answers it. We will answer it in a way that maintains the integrity of the United Kingdom Parliament. MPs from all parts of the UK will continue to deliberate and vote together on matters that affect the whole of the UK. For matters where responsibility has been devolved, all MPs will continue to vote during important parliamentary stages. These proposals will help safeguard the union by embedding fairness into Parliament’s law-making process.
As we deliver on our commitments to each part of the United Kingdom, the Government recognise the importance of ensuring that the devolved aspects of our constitution work as a whole. People across the UK expect all four Administrations to work together. A commitment to good working relations and respect for the memorandum of understanding, which sets out how we will work together, needs to come from all sides. We are committed to exploring jointly a range of options for enhancing relations with the devolved Administrations. The report of the Constitution Committee of this House on this subject, published in the last Session, is a very welcome contribution. I know that there will be a range of views on this and we will listen to them. We will work together to make collective changes to build partnerships that are strong and effective.
Finally, I turn to the important issue of human rights. In his closing speech my noble friend Lord Faulks will cover the equally important issue of victims’ rights. The Government are committed to human rights. They were elected with a mandate to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. Protection of human rights is vital in a democratic and modern society, and this Government will be as committed to upholding human rights as any. But we must remember that the protection of human rights does not begin and end with the Human Rights Act. Rights were protected prior to that Act and they will continue to be protected under a Bill of Rights. The purpose of the Bill of Rights is not to reduce human rights but to reform our system and restore credibility to their legal framework. We know that this will be significant legislation and we will take the time to get it right. We will consult widely and consider the full implications, but for those reforms there is a compelling argument and a strong mandate.
The reforms set out in the gracious Speech demonstrate our intention to govern with respect and to honour our promises to improve governance for all parts of our United Kingdom. We will bring forward legislation to secure a strong, fair and enduring constitutional settlement. The cause of bringing together a united kingdom is a noble one in which your Lordships’ House will, I know, play a full part. I look forward to listening to the debate today on all these important issues.