Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:15 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, if that was the speech of a novice, we look forward to hearing from the noble Lord when he finds his length. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this timely and exceptionally well-informed debate. In particular, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who chose and introduced it, this time without the colourful reference to his maiden aunts.

The noble Lord has listened to more hours of debate in Parliament on the union—many of them I expect involuntarily—than any of us. He has unrivalled insight into the constitutional and legislative implications of what has happened in the past and what is happening now. I am therefore pleased that at this time of constitutional change, with our eyes turned outwards to the EU, he has provided us with the opportunity to look inwards—as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, has just told us—to the far older, far stronger bonds between our nations, which have enabled us to overcome past challenges, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, told us. This is an opportunity to see how those bonds might be strengthened in the future. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose managed to put the relationships in a historical context by drawing on recollections of his ancestors.

I will say straight away that the Government take the warnings from the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and others who have spoken in this debate extremely seriously. I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lords, Lord Lisvane and Lord Hain, and others have done with the Constitution Reform Group to bring stability to the union, an objective which we all share. The Minister for the Constitution looks forward to meeting that group soon, and I will return to the Bill in a moment.

Speaking on “The Andrew Marr Show” earlier this month, the Prime Minister said that, if the vote was lost on Tuesday, we would be in uncharted waters, and that of course has consequences for the union. In our debate, we have had some professional political cartographers steering us away from the jagged rocks below the cliff edge to which some siren Brexiteers entice us, and indicating where calmer waters and more favourable winds may prevail. No deal would be bad for all of us but it would create particular political tensions in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as we have heard today from my noble friends Lord McInnes and Lord Dunlop, and from the noble Lords, Lord Thurlow, Lord Hannay and Lord Hay, who spoke about the backstop. I think we were all moved by the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about Wales and the late Steffan Lewis, to whom he paid tribute.

It is worth rewinding briefly to see how we got here. Of course, the centrifugal forces within the UK predate the Brexit referendum, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said in his opening remarks. This was repeated by the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Chartres. We saw the growth in political support for Scottish independence when the SNP unexpectedly won overall control at Holyrood, and in Northern Ireland we have seen growing support for the party that believes in a united Ireland. The Brexit referendum crystallised and added momentum to these forces.

During our debate, there has been criticism of the decision to hold referendums, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, reminded us of how we got here. I am personally cautious about referendums as they can cause tension with our parliamentary democracy, but there are some issues which it cannot satisfactorily resolve. For example, the SNP, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, was never going to win a majority in Westminster to deliver Scottish independence, yet there was clearly significant support for it in Scotland. The referendum was the right way to resolve that issue. Likewise, UKIP was never going to win a Westminster election, but in 2014 it topped the poll in the EU elections on an unequivocal manifesto of withdrawal. Again, the referendum was the right way to resolve this question and lance the boil.

Likewise, there is provision for a referendum in Northern Ireland should the conditions in the Belfast agreement ever be fulfilled, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. I was impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said: that in Northern Ireland, more important than Brexit is the wish of the population to see the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. They see that as their top priority.

In passing, I understand all the arguments against a second referendum, which is not government policy, but I do not accept that our democratic tradition is so fragile that it could not withstand one, were it to be held.

The criticism that can be made of the Brexit referendum is not so much of the decision to hold it, as of the subsequent and unsuccessful campaign to remain, recently revealed on our screens as having been outwitted by a slick if, at times, irresponsible operation acting below the radar of conventional politics and masterminded by an arch political disruptor. That referendum crystallised, but did not cause, the different views in the UK on whether we should remain part of the EU. Two countries voted to leave and two to remain. The consequences of that have been the focus of today’s debate.

I turn to the constructive proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in his Bill to help bind the UK together. I commend him for identifying the broadly undisputed purposes of the United Kingdom in Clause 2. I also applaud the heroic endeavour to distinguish between what are called “central policy areas” and matters that are devolved to the four national Parliaments. Here, I particularly welcome the requirement that the Governments of each nation co-operate on matters of national importance, such as aspects of defence and security. Co-operation is one of the key principles of our current memorandum of understanding between the UK Government and the devolved Governments, and its operation over recent years has been positive. Such an approach should continue. I propose to say a word or two in a moment about one of the themes running through the debate on the relationship between government and the devolved Assemblies.

Reading the press release put out by the steering committee on 9 October, I was struck by the following sentence:

“the Bill asserts that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and (if it so chooses) England is each entitled to its own internal sovereignty”.

The noble Lord might find this an unfair comment, but I found it perverse that a Bill that seeks to brings us closer together should have as its starting point the total separation of the four parts of the union. Even if they subsequently agreed to pool sovereignty, that initial step and taste of sovereignty might make subsequent independence easier to achieve, a point made by my noble friend Lord Dunlop.

My first question on reading the Bill relates to the asymmetrical nature of current devolution settlements, which I think correctly reflects the different histories and cultures of our four nations. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all treated differently. The Bill does not appear to make provision for this, and has a one-size-fits-all approach that does not reflect the findings of the Silk and Smith commissions, nor the views of the people of the UK, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord McInnes.

My second question relates to one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, about adjusting the settlement over time to reflect changing circumstances. We can do that at the moment and we do so relatively easily. English votes for English laws is a case in point. It has embedded fairness and balance into Parliament’s law-making process, ensuring that MPs representing English constituencies can consent to legislation that affects only England while maintaining the key principle that all MPs from across the UK can debate, amend and vote on every piece of legislation.

We have also continued to move forward at pace to decentralise governance in England, bringing powers closer to the people so that services can be delivered that are attuned to their local needs. I challenge the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I think said that little had changed since Redcliffe-Maud. Through the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, we have taken major steps to decentralise governance in England through devolution deals. Seven city regions are now headed up by their own elected mayors, with their own devolved powers and budgets.

I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. An enthusiastic debate over devolution is continuing across Yorkshire and a number of further suggestions have already been discussed locally. We are of course willing to discuss proposals that have support behind them, cover a sensible economic area and do not break up areas that already have long-standing integrated services. We are currently considering the information recently submitted by the 18 Yorkshire leaders, but we have always been clear that the first step to any devolution deal across Yorkshire is the full implementation of the 2015 Sheffield City Region devolution deal. We want Sheffield to enjoy the full benefits of its 2015 deal, including £900 million of investment.

Turning back to the Bill for a moment, the future changes set out in Part 2 of the Schedule seem infinitely more complicated and cumbersome, and risk locking us into a settlement that becomes outdated—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. Constitutional development in the UK needs to evolve to reflect circumstances of the day and be flexible enough to meet new challenges.

The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, will understand that his Bill is unlikely to have an easy passage. My attention was caught by Clause 28(1), which says:

“On commencement of this Section, the House of Lords shall cease to form part of Parliament”.

Well, we may need to spend a little time on that one. The noble Lord will understand better than anyone that a Bill heralding the most significant constitutional change in our history will take a Session or two to make progress.

What are the Government doing to strengthen the union during Brexit? We recognise the importance of working closely with the devolved Administrations throughout the negotiation process and welcome the regular engagement that has taken place through forums such as the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations and the Ministerial Forum on EU Negotiations.

Here I might depart from my text—always a risk—and say that one of the themes running through the debate has been what the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, called “imperial condescension”, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to as a “power grab”, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred to in more derogatory terms. But it was clear from what the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said, that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right honourable friend David Lidington, wants his approach to have that element of respect and to promote good relationships.

I take on board the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the noble Lords, Lord Lisvane and Lord McConnell, my noble friend Lord McInnes and a number of others that this relationship should be rebooted. Comments were made about the regularity of the meetings and Ministers’ attendance. It is quite clear from this debate that the institutions and the quality of the dialogue need to be improved. As a result of the exchanges on that subject, I propose to talk to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whenever I can and feed through to him the theme that has consistently run through some of the speeches on both sides. I know that officials are working closely with counterparts in the devolved Administrations to take forward this review of intergovernmental relationships. On 19 December, the Prime Minister, together with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, reviewed the progress made so far of the review at the JMC. It is important for us to look, in the light of our debate, at the principles and machinery that underpin the relationships and how we can best ensure—