My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, and my noble friend Lady Merron on their maiden speeches—cogent, moving, funny and full of perspective. We look forward to hearing much more from them. While I certainly do not welcome the measures in the gracious Speech to make voting more complex and inaccessible to people or the power grab of the Executive or the privatisation agenda behind the health Bill, I do welcome the Government’s intention to strengthen the union, finally.
In the years to come, there will be four roads back from this dreadful pandemic. The climb back to jobs and economic prosperity; the setting and achieving of bold climate change targets; the renewal of close and sustainable partnerships with our European Union friends and neighbours; and the fight to save the United Kingdom from disintegration.
Despite the whining bluster of the SNP, the outcome of the Scottish elections was not as obvious and clear-cut as the First Minister claims. Scotland has by no means made up its mind on a second referendum or on independence and, I believe, is not in the mood for risk-laden, irreversible decision-making in the middle of a pandemic. The Prime Minister’s summit, bringing devolution leaders together, is a start, but a complete cultural change in the language of devolution is needed if that language is not to become extinct.
By all means, ensure that UK-wide infrastructure projects are signposted as such, so there is more clarity for citizens on the source of public funding, but we will have to go far beyond summits, infrastructure signposting and the redeployment of Whitehall departments if our grandchildren are going to live and thrive in a United Kingdom in 30 years’ time. We will have to tear up the “know your place” devolution handbook that is still influencing government thinking and decision-making. What is devolved and what is reserved does not have to be thrown out of the window, but it does have to be reformed for modern, post-Brexit times. Devolution for the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s must, first and foremost, be about partnership and parity of esteem and decision-making across the UK.
The template set out by Gordon Brown recently would not be a bad place for the Government to start. The excellent report on intergovernmental relations by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, at the request of the Government, also needs serious study, and we will hear from the noble Lord later in the debate. The emphasis of the noble Lord, Lord Hague, on collaboration across the parties in the matter of devolution was another useful contribution to the debate this week.
Some will say that keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom is a lost cause, that that ship has sailed. I do not agree. Yes, intergovernmental relations between the devolved Administrations need a serious reset, but the union can be saved. I am more convinced than ever, through my membership of the new Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, of what practical, pragmatic and legislative co-operation between devolved Administrations can actually achieve, and how an ongoing low-trust environment between the four nations can be avoided.
In our recent committee report to Parliament, we describe how common frameworks stitch together policy across the union in so many areas previously covered by EU law—areas such as food safety, hazardous waste, farming, transport systems, the environment and much more. This is achieved in a practical, co-operative, constructive way that respects the divergence of the devolved nations and builds together the new UK internal market. That is not to say there are no problems with constructing common frameworks, but there is a recognisable dispute resolution mechanism that is supported and has buy-in from the devolved Administrations.
When it comes to building a co-operative union, we have to roll up our sleeves now, today, and, as the poet Cicely Herbert said,
“plant trees for those born later.”