Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:42 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 12:42 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this debate. I also thank him and his colleagues in the Constitution Reform Group, including the Marquess of Salisbury, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others. They have at least been working on a growing problem which, by and large, has not been strategically addressed.

As we have sat in this House over the last few years, a number of noble Lords on the Front Bench have brought forward one constitutional Bill after another. We had several Welsh Bills and Scottish Bills as well as ones pertaining to Northern Ireland. At the other end of the Corridor we had English votes for English laws; we had referenda, which sometimes seemed to pop up without any real definition of when they should be introduced; and we had had a variety of proposals to reform your Lordships’ House. The underlying common denominator of all this is that there is no overarching plan. It is haphazard, and driven by events and pressures. There is no strategy involved in any of it. At least the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and his colleagues have been attempting to do something about that—not that I accept everything they say; I do not. At the same time, they are at least sitting down and making an effort. Other people, including on the committees of this House and in Parliament, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, pointed out, have also made contributions.

However, the fact is that we have no clear idea of how things are to be done. For instance, there is no plan for how the devolved regions should account for the money that is provided to them by central government for their actions. There is no accountability. They can decide to contribute views or not. I said in another debate that it was like a giant ATM machine: devolved Ministers can draw out money, but they do not have to make any contributions on what they have done with it. I would like the Minister in his reply to address that.

Then we have the Sewel convention and other things that have developed. In addition, of course, we have the catastrophe back at home, with no devolved Government, no direct rule Ministers—nothing. It is all completely absent. If the backstop proposals were to be implemented, we would be in even worse shape, because we would have no representation in Europe as well. Talk about a democratic beheading—we have a clear example of it there.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, referenced the Joint Ministerial Committee. I have sat on that body, and I have to say that Whitehall Ministers turn up as if it was a chore. In other words, there is no appetite for it whatever. They turned up because they had to, and they normally sent not their number one but their number two or number three along to represent them. They had no interest in it—it was a nuisance—and that says it all. That has to be fixed, and it will not be fixed unless there is an overall plan.

The other thing that concerns me is referenda. We have had a number of them over the years. The two big ones on Europe were brought into being because of internal disputes within the two major parties. We had a referendum on AV, and referenda in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Again, it is all haphazard—there is no plan. A number of people are saying that we need another referendum to get out of our present difficulties. Take care; it is a very divisive thing. You would not know what the result of another referendum might be, and it could set up the pieces for a further Scottish referendum. I do not see how you could make a coherent argument against a second Scottish referendum if you have one on Europe again. There will also be the question about what you have on the ballot paper; it could be divisive and very unrealistic. You could have a border poll and a Scottish referendum both driven by a further referendum on our EU membership—so I hope that Members will consider that carefully.

There must be a serious discussion on the constitutional future of this country and its structures, not a continuation of the haphazard Bills that come before us, one after the other.