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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:05 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Humphreys Baroness Humphreys Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 5:05 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I add my name to the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who, thankfully, is still in his place. He gained the House’s respect and admiration on devolved issues and we will miss his wisdom and knowledge at the Dispatch Box. He has been a true friend to Wales, and I thank him very sincerely for his massive contribution to the devolution process.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who spoke on day 2 of this debate, I read the Queen’s Speech carefully, hoping to find some reference to Wales—something to show that the Government understood that for the devolved Administrations the process of the further transference of powers is important. From these Benches, my colleagues have, in the past, made the case for the powers highlighted in part 2 of the Silk commission’s report to be transferred to the Welsh Assembly: further powers over transport, energy, broadcasting and youth justice, among others. We have also made the case for the funding of Network Rail in relation to Wales and for new powers for Wales’s Children’s Commissioner. The list is not short, so I am surprised and disappointed that the Secretary of State for Wales was unable to find support among his Cabinet colleagues to address at least one of these issues.

Last year we deplored the Government’s decision to turn their back on major infrastructure projects in Wales: the electrification of the railway line from Cardiff to Swansea and the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon scheme. I look forward to hearing the Chancellor's Budget Statement at the beginning of next month, to learn whether, now austerity is apparently over, at least one of those projects will make it back on to his list and we will, at least, get a mention.

I am a federalist who has always supported devolution, believing that the devolution process Ron Davies talked of would eventually lead to the destination of a federal UK with a mature, mutually respectful system of government of equals. But progress is slow and, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, suggested earlier, opinions in Wales are beginning to diverge. This year we have seen a number of independence marches across the country—not as large as the People’s Vote march we saw outside Parliament on Saturday, of course, but equally focused and as quietly determined.

Those of us who live in Wales have become used to a new political term this year:“indy-curious”. It describes people—unionists, federalists and the hitherto uncommitted—who want to know more about independence and how it would work for the people of Wales. They are both Welsh and English speakers, who have watched the Brexit fiasco over the past three years and come to the conclusion, even before the Prime Minister’s latest plan to create a new economic border in the Irish Sea, that the prospect of Irish reunification is an increasingly real one, as is the prospect of Scottish independence.

The vision of a future UK consisting of Wales and England only is the one that the indy-curious find less than attractive. Just as remaining in the European Union is best for the UK’s economy and security, I believe that Wales remaining in the UK is best for Wales’s economy and security. However, the Government should understand that, if there are increased calls for independence for Wales, they will be fuelled by the pragmatism of the indy-curious and not necessarily just by nationalism.

A recent Welsh Government report, Reforming our Union, has concluded that this Parliament should allow Wales to hold an independence referendum if politicians who call for one win an Assembly election, and that the UK must be open to Wales voting to quit the union. In comments on the report, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, himself a unionist, said that the parliamentary sovereignty model in which the UK Parliament is the highest form of authority in the land does not,

“provide a basis for the future”.

The fault-lines in our union are showing. The self-styled Minister for the Union, who is prepared cavalierly to break from the European Union and carelessly begin the dismantling of the UK by placing an economic border in the Irish Sea, needs to understand that giving himself a fine-sounding title will not in itself heal this fracturing union. That will require leadership and the ability to listen, to compromise and to put aside partisan opinions and make decisions that benefit everyone—but, above all, it will require a change in attitude.

English paternalism, however well meaning, has had its day. The devolved Administrations are reaching maturity and have their own visions of their future. I would prefer that future to be one that sees the nations of the UK working together as equals. If this union is to survive, the Government need to take action to secure it.