European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 2nd May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 9:00 pm, 2nd May 2018

Of course I would wish to deal with England in a friendly and constructive manner, but the serious point is that many of us have recognised that ultimately, the United Kingdom is England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are the entities. Within England there are lots of other entities, but they fall below the state level. I certainly have never had the difficulty other people have had in saying that a federal constitution would include England having its own voice, but that is for another day. All I am saying is that we have muddled along and now have elected mayors, metropolitan authorities, the London Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament—all with different powers, different terms of reference and different mechanisms. Although it is very British to maintain this pluralism and diversity, at some point or other we may need to try to find a slightly more coherent framework in which these matters can be resolved and in which people can know that where there is a dispute, there will an impartial resolution based on law, rather than the heavier political weight overruling the lighter weights.

The fact remains that the noble Lord’s intervention is entirely right: 85% of the population lives in England. England does not constitute 85% of the land area, but if we have a United Kingdom, there is a responsibility on those of us who live elsewhere than in England to acknowledge the weight of England. But if the English want the United Kingdom to continue, it behoves them to understand that they will have to give probably slightly more than they want to accommodate Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, because the price is holding the union together. That is what this debate has fundamentally been about. The argument I always make is that I wonder at what point, if ever, an ultranationalist would regard anything that left residual power with the United Kingdom as acceptable. If your objective is to leave, my only point is that once you have left, you will suddenly find that England is still there and you still have to deal with it. We have had that debate for the past several weeks—about Europe still being there and still having to deal with it. It is the same point.

This debate has been very academic, legalistic and process-driven. In the end, it is about politics and policy and what the Government believe is essentially determined by the UK’s national interest and where they believe that allowing the devolved authorities to block something would be contrary to the UK interest. I say that as somebody who acknowledges that there is sometimes a danger that if Scotland insists on its rights, it will be in the interests not of Scotland but of an ideological commitment to being Scottish, and there are people in Scotland who would rather be poor and independent than well off and sharing resources with the rest of the United Kingdom. We need to know where people are coming from. In a sense, in Scotland people are clearer about that than they were a few years ago. I suggest that support for the United Kingdom, with all its faults—and, by God, there are many and they are very conspicuous at the moment—is significantly stronger than it was a few years ago because people have seen the abyss. We are looking into another abyss right now, and I suspect opinion will change accordingly.

The sunset clause has been mentioned by many people. It would be helpful if the Minister explained why we need five years rather than three. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, made a point about what the sunset clause applies to. I thought it was to the period to which the process would apply, not to the decisions made under that process. That is a point for clarification. From the Government’s point of view, what does the sunset clause apply to?

My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace articulated that for a regulation on, for example, pesticides there would clearly be a UK agreement and it would be perverse for any component part to resist it. I shall give one final example because agriculture features quite strongly in these powers. We are about to leave the European Union. The common agricultural policy has been the basis of support for Scottish farmers. It has been based on an acquis which is focused on smaller, more marginal farmers in the less-favoured areas. The House will be well aware that most of them live in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although I acknowledge that they also live in the Pennines, the Lake District and other parts of England.

There are debates in the Conservative Party about abandoning subsidies altogether. There is clear concern in the devolved areas about the impact of that. But we can look at it both ways. For example, somebody who sees Scotland as having twice as much, much more marginal agriculture than England, in most cases, would say, “We want to be able to continue to support our agriculture”. But they might also say, “But we think that is something the United Kingdom should help us with, so there should be a UK policy that helps to contribute to it”. The arch-UK nationalist point would be to say, “Well, you can have the right to support your farmers, but you will pay for it out of your own tax base”. I would suggest that questions the validity of the United Kingdom, and I will say that in friendly terms to Michael Gove and his team in due course.

The other area is social security, where we have decided that we want to transfer the power. I find it interesting that the SNP is saying, “No, no, we want more power”, having said, “We can’t quite accept responsibility for social security just yet, because we haven’t got the mechanisms in place”.

I think we have probably reached a settlement which is the centre of gravity of this debate for now. We now need to devise a process in the longer term whereby collective decision-making can be put into a context where all the component parts honestly feel that they are likely to get their voice heard and a fair and equitable decision, with some kind of external judicial review or appeal process as the final backstop, rather than it being based simply on weight of numbers.

Having said that, I think many of us who saw the beginning of this debate when Clause 11 was published are very grateful that we are now at the end of it and can actually see a way forward. I wish it was true of all other aspects of the Bill.