Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:39 am on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lisvane Lord Lisvane Crossbench 11:39 am, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I begin with a word of thanks to those Cross-Bench colleagues who voted for the Motion to be debated. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is to reply to the debate for the Government. In view of our happy co-operation in former lives, I hope that I may refer to him as my noble friend on this occasion. I see from the speakers’ list that I am allotted 15 minutes in moving the Motion. That is an unimaginable luxury but, in view of the long list of speakers, I shall try not to use all that time and so perhaps offer a little elbow room to other noble Lords. I am extremely grateful to the Government Chief Whip for the half-hour extension to the debate.

The Motion is couched specifically in terms of the hazards to the union posed by Brexit, but the seeds were sown long before. We have a worrying habit in this country of doing constitutional change in bits, as the occasion serves, but with little overall intent or co-ordination. I have seen the process at close quarters for 46 years, so I entirely understand how this has come about. The Government, often incoming, have their priorities and wish to demonstrate their authority. The business managers wish to make rapid progress with focused proposals. They do not much like Parliament going into what might be called seminar mode. And of course, there is the ever-looming phenomenon of “Events, dear boy, events”.

The result over several Parliaments is that we are left with a patchwork. Nowhere is this clearer than in the devolution of powers to different parts of the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different models of devolved government. They have developed independently and subject to the successive pressures of the moment; no one, I think, would regard any of them as wholly successful. Moreover, they are characterised by a sort of imperial condescension from the centre—from Westminster and Whitehall, but especially from the latter—and they are inconsistent. As a Welshman by birth and title, I think I may ask why Scotland and Northern Ireland can set their own rates of air passenger duty but Wales cannot. Indeed, why are justice and policing devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland but not in Wales? I am glad that my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd is addressing that question through the work of his commission. England, the largest part of the UK, accounts for some 85% of United Kingdom GVA and a little more in terms of population and GDP, yet with the exception of London and a few city mayors, it has been largely omitted from these changes. Of course, that poses a pressing but ever more intractable “English question”.

I have described an unsatisfactory and probably unstable system that has come about through a variety of political pressures and aspirations, often worthy in themselves but with unco-ordinated and piecemeal results. Were we not now set to leave the European Union, in any event, significant centrifugal forces in the years ahead would put the integrity and stability of the UK’s devolution settlement at risk. The profound Brexit changes now in contemplation will, I suggest, only increase that risk. I am sure that noble Lords taking part in the debate will have many expert perceptions of how the months ahead may put further strain on the union. I note that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee has described our territorial constitution as “in flux” and our European Union Committee has said that,

“the European Union has been, in effect, part of the glue holding the United Kingdom together”.

What are the main hazards? The first is the Brexit process itself, bearing in mind that in the referendum, two of the constituent parts of the UK voted differently from the other two and differently from the overall result. Secondly, the repatriation of powers will be contentious. Central government will want to protect the UK-wide single market by retaining substantial powers in London, but Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast will not see it like that. Also, the repatriation process will, I think, take longer than anyone at the moment predicts, which is not going to help. The complex exchanges over the Scottish and Welsh continuity Bills and the referral of the Scottish Bill to the Supreme Court demonstrate that there are serious unresolved tensions. The Scottish constitutional relations Secretary has referred to “constitutional vandalism” and has said that he,

“could not conceive of circumstances”,

in which the Scottish Parliament would give its consent to further UK Brexit-related legislation.

Our departure from the EU will intensify debate about the fair funding of the different parts of the UK. It is a commonplace to say that we must move on from the Barnett formula, but it is not yet clear how we should do so. In Northern Ireland, the issues of borders and backstops are already causing great concern and contention, and lurking behind those issues is the aspiration of some for reunification. There is also the risk, identified by the Scottish Government, that future customs arrangements might give Northern Ireland a competitive advantage among the parts of the United Kingdom.

In Scotland, a significant proportion of those who supported independence in 2014 did so on the basis that an independent Scotland would or could become a member state of the EU. The UK having left the European Union would, in the case of Scotland, remove the long-standing unwillingness of the EU to countenance subnational aspirations, as would still be the case with Lombardy, Catalunya, Flanders and so on. This might be a seductive prospect in the context of any indyref2.

Intergovernmental relations within the United Kingdom are the concern of the Joint Ministerial Committee, which has now been in existence for 20 years—20 years this year, actually. This should be the key forum for the discussion of developing relations, but both the Scottish and the Welsh Governments have expressed dismay at the way it is operated. Her Majesty’s Government have the opportunity to make this a much more effective mechanism to support the Brexit process. I trust that this is something that will receive close attention, as recommended by our EU and Constitution Committees and the equivalent committees in Scotland and Wales. I hope that in his reply to the debate, the noble Lord will be able to tell us the Government’s current thinking on how the JMC might be overhauled.

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has suggested that separate English representation on the JMC would be a way of addressing the English question, although how this would be achieved in practice is not entirely clear. It is a pleasure to pay tribute to the work of the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit, which brings together the chairs and convenors of the committees scrutinising Brexit at Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff with, understandably in the current circumstances, the participation of officials from Belfast as observers. The forum, which happens to be meeting at Westminster today, offers a mutually supportive and constructive approach which so far has not, I think, quite been replicated in the JMC, which the forum has described as “not fit for purpose”.

Noble Lords may be chafing slightly at my listing a litany of problems without any suggestion of how they might be cured. In the excellent debate in your Lordships’ House before Christmas, there were calls for a constitutional convention or commission. In replying to that debate, the noble Lord who is now on the Front Bench said that the wide-ranging nature of the issues raised meant that any convention looking into them would take years to do them justice. I have a lot of sympathy with his point of view. It would be hard to argue that such a convention should be anything other than comprehensive, which might further reduce the likely glacial pace of such an initiative. Time is not on our side.

I do not suggest that the Act of Union Bill, which I introduced in October, has all the answers, but at least it seeks to address the problems in an holistic way. I must be careful not to offend against anticipation—this is a debate on the Motion before us, not on the Second Reading of the Bill—but perhaps, with your Lordships’ permission, I may say a few words about it.

The Bill is the result of the work of the Constitution Reform Group, which consists of members of all the major parties, including the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, both of whom are in their place. The group is convened and chaired by Lord Salisbury, a former distinguished Member and indeed Leader of your Lordships’ House, and the Bill has been drafted by the outstanding parliamentary draftsman Daniel Greenberg. It seeks to replace the present top-down method of devolution with a bottom-up method, in which the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—and perhaps the regional parts of England—would decide which powers they wished to pool for greater solidarity and effectiveness. It would replace the central imperial condescension, to which I referred earlier, with a devolution settlement properly owned by its participants. It would also include something perhaps missing from the present arrangements: the R word—respect.

The Bill is comprehensive but it does not attempt to provide a full written constitution. It does not, for example, touch those parts that work perfectly well, such as the courts and the judiciary. But it does seek to address the areas of difficulty, some of which I have outlined. It would not try to bind a subsequent Parliament—no Bill can do that—but it offers an overarching settlement with an indication of how primary legislation of, as it were, the second tier could fill in some of the detail. And there is a lot of detail to be filled in. In a sentence, it aspires to be a plan B. As each day passes, I become more and more convinced that we need a plan B.