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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:40 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop Conservative 8:40 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, it is great pleasure to follow my Constitution Committee colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. As we have already heard in the debate, the union will inevitably loom large in this new Parliament. The gracious Speech rightly recognises the importance the Government attach to the integrity and prosperity of the United Kingdom, acknowledging that constitutional and economic questions are inextricably linked. The last five or six years have demonstrated that people want two things: more responsive and accountable government; and the opportunity for every part of the country to share fully in its prosperity. One might say that they want not just a northern powerhouse and a Midlands engine, but a western powerhouse, a Northern Irish turbo and a Scottish dynamo, too—additional magnets for economic activity, complementing the power of London and the south-east, part of a common agenda to reunite a country divided by our withdrawal from the European Union.

This is the backdrop to the independent review I was commissioned to undertake to consider how the UK Government are organised to strengthen the working of the union, which a number of noble Lords have already referred to. Noble Lords will be glad to hear that the report is with the Prime Minister and I hope it will be published soon. I make it clear that the review is not about changing the existing devolution settlements, but about the machinery and arrangements enabling the UK Government to discharge sensitively their own unique duties to people across all parts of the country, and to work constructively with devolved Governments where responsibilities overlap. This is all part of the essential glue binding our United Kingdom together.

The first challenge, as I see it, is to embed union considerations at the very heart of the way Whitehall thinks and acts. At present, there are plenty of good intentions: the issue is how good intentions can translate into consistently effective policy development, decision-making and delivery. This means that Ministers and officials need to be fully aware of the implications of their policies and actions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and, for that matter, for the north of England as well.

Beyond awareness, the UK Government should be sophisticated enough to design policy for the UK as a whole and differential policy for its constituent parts. An example might be the development of a new immigration system, which I think has already been mentioned in this debate. There have been persistent calls for immigration to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament to address specific Scottish demographic challenges. However, let us not forget that the UK Government are Scotland’s Government too. Why should they not be capable of designing a system that protects the integrity of UK borders and is also sensitive to the particular needs of Scotland?

The second challenge is to promote a greater sense of the union as a joint endeavour. The devolution settlements have evolved significantly since 1998. The respective competencies of the UK Government and the devolved Governments are increasingly interdependent, so the willingness and ability of Governments to work together has never been more important. That is why intergovernmental relations need to be fundamentally reset.

I suspect all participants currently approach meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee as one might contemplate a trip to the dentist for root canal treatment without anaesthetic—something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Too often the JMC is a platform for airing a grievance or public dispute. It must surely be possible, despite constitutional differences, to build more positive relationships to advance shared interests, from tackling knife crime and drug abuse to addressing climate change, improving productivity and rebalancing the economy. But, again, this requires a change of mindset—to identify opportunities rather than seeing everything as a dispiriting and defensive damage-limitation exercise or, worse, as an argument for national exceptionalism. In short, we should be finding practical reasons to work together rather than searching for ideological excuses to fall out.

Making intergovernmental relations more transparent, with a bigger role for Parliament, would help encourage more constructive behaviour. After all, Governments working together on their priorities is what people want and expect, and there will ultimately be a political cost to those who consistently do not collaborate.

Our union—the United Kingdom—is the most successful multinational state in the world. Its success is built in part on an ability to adapt to change. Over the last 20 years the UK has changed. Devolution has empowered local decision-making while preserving the UK’s ability to act collectively when size and heft matter. We should celebrate that a feature of devolution is diversity and accept that managing difference is one of its natural consequences. We should also prize the fact that one of the core values of our union is solidarity and never forget that the promotion of common interests is one of its essential roles.