Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:59 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, it is a great honour to open this debate. I have the greatest respect for the wealth of knowledge and experience of devolution that exists within your Lordships’ House, which is amply demonstrated by the list of speakers for this debate.

In your Lordships’ House, there are former and current members of the Welsh Government, including the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who is speaking today. There are former members of the National Assembly, such as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys. There are former Secretaries of State for Wales, including the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is speaking in this debate.

There are also former members of the Scottish Government. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, is not in his place, but he certainly contributes to this House with great acumen. Former members of the Scottish Parliament are speaking today, including the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Purvis. There are also former Members of the other place who have been Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland: again, I mention the noble Lord, Lord Hain. There are a wealth of other Members of this House who served with distinction in the devolved Administrations. My noble friend Lord Duncan will close the debate. He serves both the Northern Ireland Office and the Scotland Office with distinction.

Over the past 20 years, successive United Kingdom Governments have supported devolution. They have put in place arrangements that provide the different nations of the United Kingdom with the space to pursue different domestic policies, should they choose to do so, while protecting and preserving the benefits of being part of the larger United Kingdom family of nations. Devolution has also provided our four proud nations with a platform to celebrate our unique cultural heritage, while sharing a common identity, making the United Kingdom a truly precious union of nations.

I should acknowledge that some noble Lords were not supportive of devolution historically—I fall into that category myself. That has changed massively. My own views have certainly changed; I am now very much in favour of devolution and am a proponent of it. That is true of all the mainstream parties in the United Kingdom today.

It is evident that support for devolution has grown over the years. In Wales in 1997, there was a very narrow vote in favour of establishing a National Assembly. In 2011, under David Cameron, we had a further referendum on full law-making powers, supported by all four mainstream parties in Wales. All but one local authority area voted in favour of giving the Assembly those powers; even in the only area that did not, it was an extremely close call. Today, the Senedd is an established feature of everyday life, taking critical decisions on matters that affect the lives of people in Wales. It has had many notable successes.

From my perspective, those successes are best demonstrated by the principle of where it is most appropriate for decisions to be taken. I think particularly of the foot and mouth outbreak and the way that was dealt with in Wales. It was appropriate for it to be dealt with there. It was to do not with a particular policy stance, but with immediacy and responsiveness and the fact that people in Wales expected it to be dealt with from Wales. The same could be said of many aspects of Welsh language delivery and Welsh culture. Not all Welsh language policy rests with the National Assembly, but that is surely the appropriate place for it to be.

One of the Assembly’s successes has been legislating to make Wales the first part of the United Kingdom—probably one of the first jurisdictions in the world—to charge for plastic carrier bags. Public opinion across the world has now caught up and we are seeing pressure to reduce levels of discarded plastic worldwide. The Assembly was ahead of other parts of the United Kingdom at that time, but the success of the approach in Wales led to it being replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom and, indeed, elsewhere.

Two other policy initiatives that were supported very widely in the Assembly were the Older People’s Commissioner and the Children’s Commissioner. Other pioneering Acts unique to Wales are also attracting interest from across the globe. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act aims to improve social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being by requiring public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions and to engage with local communities to tackle poverty, health inequalities and climate change, which are intergenerational issues. That seems extremely sensible. It has been happening since I left the Assembly but it seems a pioneering and interesting approach.

The Assembly also introduced a new approach to organ donation when it became the first nation in the United Kingdom to move to an opt-out system of consent. People aged 18 and over who have lived in Wales for more than 12 months and who die in Wales are now regarded as willing to donate their organs unless they have expressly said that they do not wish to do so. Other parts of the United Kingdom are considering the impact of this new system on the availability of organs for transplant.

The Scottish Parliament has also had its firsts. Scotland was the first part of the United Kingdom to introduce a smoking ban. As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, pointed out recently, it is hard to imagine that Westminster could have legislated to introduce a smoking ban only in Scotland, but that is what the Scottish Parliament did. Other parts of the United Kingdom followed later. We are still seeing significant developments. More recently, the Scottish Parliament introduced minimum unit pricing of alcohol in Scotland. The National Assembly for Wales then passed similar legislation in June for Wales, and the Welsh Government are currently finalising their plans to introduce this policy in Wales.

In Northern Ireland we see a place transformed from what it was 20 years ago. The introduction of the Belfast agreement remains a historic landmark, providing for the principle of consent, established political institutions, reformed policing and justice systems, protections for people’s rights and identities, and new bodies to foster greater north/south and east/west co-operation. The effect has been striking. Employment is at near record levels, rising to a record high of 70% at the end of last year. Northern Ireland remains the most popular location for foreign direct investment outside of London and the south-east, and since 2011 exports are up 11%. In July, the eyes of the world will once again be on Northern Ireland as the oldest and most famous golfing championship in the world, the Open, is played at Royal Portrush. I will say something later about Northern Ireland talks. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has had a leading part in this area. I look forward to hearing what he has to say later too.

These examples of successes demonstrate a further benefit of devolution: we can learn from the different approaches taken across the United Kingdom to address the common challenges we all face. We have a role to play in that—a number of noble Lords have experience of being Members of the devolved legislatures, as I have indicated. I was proud to serve in the National Assembly too for 12 years. Of course, the current Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland are also former Members of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament respectively. I have been very proud to introduce into the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government a devolution forum that meets regularly and exchanges policy ideas and progress on different areas, because we have much to learn from each other.

We should recognise that people from the proud nations of Scotland and Wales each have two Governments and expect them to work together. One example of this happening concerns growth and city deals, where the two Governments have been working with local authorities and other local partners to develop deals that cover a range of reserved and devolved matters. Indeed, I liaise on a regular basis with Assembly Member Ken Skates on the mid-Wales growth deal, for example.

Perhaps the most striking example of closer engagement relates to the European Union and our preparations to leave. Over the last year we have seen unprecedented levels of engagement between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations, best exemplified by the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales attending UK Government Cabinet committee meetings.

As we look ahead, it is evident that our intergovernmental relations architecture needs to be refreshed to meet new challenges. We will need to build on existing relationships and work together more closely than we have before. We will also need to manage our new UK regulatory frameworks, developing structures that respect devolution and encourage still closer collaboration.

The UK Government have been clear that the devolved Administrations and legislatures will gain more decision-making powers as a result of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. Powers previously exercised at EU level which intersect with devolved competence will, upon exit, flow back directly to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Government have been working closely with the devolved Administrations to decide where it makes sense to do things differently in different parts of the UK, and where we will need to work on a United Kingdom or GB-wide basis—known as the common frameworks.

This process of co-operation and collaboration is helping to shape the post-exit devolution landscape, and demonstrates how the Scottish and Welsh Governments and, currently, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, together with the United Kingdom Government, are able to work together to ensure a prosperous future for the United Kingdom outside the European Union. The publication of the third European Union (Withdrawal) Act and Common Frameworks report on 16 May is testament to the constructive work that the United Kingdom has undertaken, together with the devolved Administrations, to establish common frameworks.

There is great interest in intergovernmental relations at present, not least in light of the way the three Governments of the UK and the Northern Ireland Civil Service are working together on the UK’s exit from the EU. Intergovernmental relations are vital to the effective functioning of devolution and, most importantly, to the delivery of services for all citizens across the UK. Our Governments might not always agree with one another on matters of policy, but we all agree that effective intergovernmental relations are key to delivering on behalf of the citizens of the UK.

Since the inception of devolution, intergovernmental relations have continued to evolve, to develop and, largely, to improve, to meet the needs of the various Administrations across the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister was clear in her meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee plenary session on 14 March 2018 that a fresh look into the way our Governments work together was required, in light of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. This work—reviewing the memorandum of understanding on devolution, known as the review of intergovernmental relations—has been ongoing between the four Administrations

Over the coming months, we need to ensure that we are considering proposals for the future delivery of our shared objectives. We want to do that coherently and in a way that provides for Governments to have effective relations but remains adaptable enough to suit their own requirements.

The devolution settlements have not been set in stone for the past 20 years. I will not go over all the changes made in that time, noble Lords will be relieved to hear, but it is worth noting the significant changes made to the Welsh Assembly under the Government of Wales Act, and the most recent further transfer of powers to the devolved legislatures and Administrations under the Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017. Many noble Lords speaking in this debate have had a massive impact in this area.

First, in relation to the Scotland Act 2016, two decades on from the first Scotland Act, Holyrood has become one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. Power and accountability are better balanced than ever before. The Scotland Act 2016 delivered in full the Smith commission agreement, reached by all five of Scotland’s main political parties. The Act increased the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament; increased responsibility for welfare in areas that complement the Scottish Parliament’s existing powers; increased the scope for the Scottish Government to be more involved in the scrutiny of a range of public bodies; and gave significant new responsibility for roads, speed limits, onshore oil and gas extraction and consumer advocacy and advice.

This year saw an important landmark for the Scotland Act 2016, with all its sections that increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament now in force. This follows the commencement of Section 27 on 8 February 2019, which devolves legislative competence to the Scottish Parliament for welfare food schemes. The Scottish Parliament will now be able to legislate in every area where the Scotland Act 2016 gave it the power to do so.

The Wales Act 2017, which I was very proud to pilot through this House, delivered clarity for Welsh devolution and accountability for the Welsh Government. It implemented the commitments in the St David’s Day agreement that required primary legislation and transformed the Assembly into a fully fledged Parliament. The Act put in place a new, reserved powers model for Welsh devolution; it devolved additional powers in areas such as elections, energy and transport; and it enabled the Assembly to take control of its own affairs, including giving it the ability to decide its own name. I am pleased that the Presiding Officer is taking forward the necessary legislation, so that our Parliament will become the Senedd. The Wales Act provided a robust package that made the Welsh devolution settlement clear, sustainable and stable for the future. The devolution of tax and borrowing powers to Wales and Scotland has increased the accountability of the devolved Administrations as they have become responsible for how funding is raised, as well as how it is spent.

For Northern Ireland, this is not the 20th anniversary of devolution; there, the history of devolution goes back almost 100 years. Northern Ireland’s most recent iteration of devolution stems from the 1998 Belfast agreement, or Good Friday agreement, which is quite simply one of the most important documents in the complex, intertwined and not always happy history of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Last year, of course, marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. The agreement was a historic landmark in the history of Northern Ireland, representing the triumph of politics over the division and destruction of the previous 30 years, which saw over 3,500 people tragically killed and countless more lives shattered by violence. Along with its successor agreements, it has been the foundation stone of all that has been achieved.

All of us who care deeply about Northern Ireland have an overriding responsibility to do all we can to protect, preserve and promote that agreement. For our part, the Government remain absolutely steadfast in our support for it and in upholding our commitments under it: to the constitutional principles it set out, to the institutions it establishes and to the rights it guarantees. As a result of the relative peace and stability that the agreement ushered in for so many people, Northern Ireland is a place transformed from what it was two decades ago. But the murder of Lyra McKee last month was a terrible personal tragedy, as well as a sober reminder of why we must not let things slide back to how they used to be. Since that sickening attack in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have shown great leadership in standing together to reject violence, but it is now time for them and us to go further.

The best possible way of showing those who oppose peace and democracy that their efforts are futile is for all the political institutions of the Good Friday agreement to be fully restored and functioning, as was intended by those who reached that historic, epoch-making agreement 21 years ago. The stability and safety provided by the agreement have allowed Northern Ireland to thrive. Northern Ireland is now a leading destination for inward investment; unemployment is at a record low and employment at a record high. Northern Ireland now needs a devolved Government to allow for local decision-making, strengthen the economy and build a united and prosperous community, and to help guarantee continuing peace and better communal relations.

I turn to English votes and English decentralisation. The recent history of devolution is not exclusive to the devolved Administrations’ relationship with the UK Government and Parliament. Devolution is an exercise of bringing power closer to the people, and this Government have moved quickly to bring about decentralised governance in England through the metro mayors. We now have nine metro mayors throughout the country, if one includes London in that tally, most recently in the North of Tyne region. We have also undertaken to come forward with a Statement on the future of metro mayors and devolution, which we will do shortly.

As noble Lords will know, changes have also been made to how Parliament operates to give effect to the principle of English consent, and sometimes English and Welsh consent, where votes concern only those nations. This approach seeks to address fairly the long-standing West Lothian question.

At the heart of the United Kingdom is the unity of our people: a unity of interests, outlook and principles. This transcends party politics and institutions, the constitution and the economy. It is about the values that we share in our family of nations.

Our union is strongest when each of its constituent parts is strong and working together; we are committed to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. When we come together as one people, we benefit from the security and stability that come from being part of one of the largest economies in the world, pooling risks and sharing benefits.

Twenty years on, devolution is indeed the settled will of the people. The settlement has proved itself adaptable and strong. It has given the different nations of the United Kingdom the space to pursue different domestic policies while protecting and preserving the benefits of being part of the larger United Kingdom family of nations.

We remain focused on ensuring that the interests of each nation are fully represented within our union. In the short term, leaving the EU will have a great impact on the future of devolution, including increasing the powers of the devolved legislatures and Administrations. The review of intergovernmental relations will ensure that the way the Administrations work together is appropriate for these new developments.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to open the debate today, to reflect on the achievements of devolution and to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the renewed Northern Ireland Assembly. Our commitment to devolution is total. The cause of bringing together our United Kingdom is a noble one. It is a cause in which I know your Lordships’ House will play its full part. I look forward to listening to the debate today on these important issues. I beg to move.